In praise of Dustin Byfuglien

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Given how December went in Winnipeg, the Jets could’ve called it “Ecember.”

Over the course of the month, the team lost four of its top minute men on defense — Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, Jacob Trouba and Mark Stuart — then saw its D further depleted when Grant Clitsome went down to injury as well.

For most teams, those losses would be a death blow. Thankfully, Winnipeg had Big Buff.

Hyperbolic maybe, but to say Dustin Byfuglien saved the Jets season over the last four weeks isn’t that big a reach. Consider:

• After spending a good chunk of the season at forward, Byfuglien was moved to defense — at head coach Paul Maurice’s behest — and immediately thrust into Suter-like workloads. In 13 December games, Byfuglien played over 26 minutes 10 times, including a season-high 29:58 in a 4-3 shootout loss to Colorado on the 11th.

• Moving to defense resulted in an uptick in offensive production. After scoring just nine points through October and November, Byfuglien had four goals and 11 points in 13 games last month.

• Despite playing largely without Bogosian, Enstrom, Trouba and Stuart, the Jets went 7-3-3 in December and held onto a wild card spot in the highly competitive Western Conference.

• In his first game of the new year, Byfuglien put forth a monster effort in Winnipeg’s 5-1 drubbing of Toronto, finishing with a goal, an assist, a plus-4 rating, five shots on goal, three hits and nearly 24 minutes of ice time.

“As soon as the puck touches his stick the whole play just kind of stops,” Jets goalie Michael Hutchinson said after the Leafs game, per the Winnipeg Sun. “Everyone just kind of waits to see what he’s going to do with it.”

Byfuglien’s always been something of an enigma. A towering presence (6-foot-5 with a weight that, uh, fluctuates) and boasting an impressive skill set, he’s often been described as all tools, no toolbox and a player that couldn’t be counted upon to perform consistently. Part of the problem, it seemed, was developing the right identity and playing style: Is Byfuglien a forward, or defenseman? Should he be a physical force, or offensive-minded?

The answer to the latter, it turns out, was both. Maurice has coaxed a simplified, well-rounded game out of Byfuglien, embodied on this goal versus Toronto:

Looking ahead, it’ll be interesting to see what Maurice decides once his defensemen are healthy. Byfuglien likes playing on the blueline and, to hear the coach explain it, moving Big Buff back to forward might not be an option anymore.

“The quality of game that he’s playing from a defensive point of view has been outstanding,” Maurice said, per the Sun. “He’s a really bright man and he understands the game very well. He wants to play defense, that one is well-documented.

“The way he’s playing defensively right now, he’s got to stay there. He’s playing like an elite defenseman.”