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Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today Sports)
Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today Sports)

nhl Jets

Byfuglien continues to impress new coach Add to ...

Dustin Byfuglien may have to scratch for things he likes about playing forward but his head coach is certainly sold on the way the former defenceman is performing when he’s on the ice.

“I really like the way he’s into the game on the bench, he’s finishing checks, he’s engaged in what he’s doing,” Paul Maurice said Thursday, as the Winnipeg Jets prepared to play host to the Vancouver Canucks on Friday.

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“He doesn’t at all look like a player who’s waiting for this experiment not to work and ‘I’m going to go back to where I want to.’”

Moving Byfuglien to the wing was one of former coach Claude Noel’s last acts as he tried to reverse a five-game slide that ultimately cost him his job. Maurice left Byfuglien there and suggests it’s working so well it’s not even something he thinks about.

“He’s put up big numbers, scored overtime goals, done the things, so he’s impactful in our game,” Maurice said.

His old team, the Chicago Blackhawks, also tried Byfuglien at forward, although he has made it no secret he prefers defence. He hasn’t quit cold turkey and still covers the blueline when the Jets have a power play and Byfuglien is still the third-highest scoring defenceman in the league with 40 points.

When Winnipeg’s power play works (which isn’t often, ranking 24th in the NHL) it’s usually Byfuglien who’s partly responsible. He has a team-leading 19 power-play points.

While forward might not be his first choice, he says it’s his job to do what he’s asked to help the Jets win.

“I don’t know if I’m really comfortable yet but getting there,” he said Thursday. “Playing with the same line helps and getting to know where they go, it’s better.”

He plays right wing on what is nominally the team’s third line with Olli Jokinen in the middle and Devin Setoguchi on the left side.

It has largely done what Noel hoped to accomplish, given the Jets three legitimate scoring lines that opposition teams have to be concerned about. Byfuglien has had six points in the nine games since the change, more than his linemates combined.

The shift has meant rookie defenceman Jacob Trouba, just 19, is now getting a lot of ice time and defence partner Mark Stuart has nothing but praise for the way he’s handled himself.

“He’s a kid who’s got tremendous skill and he’s going to be such a good player in the league, he already is,” said the veteran, whose own play seems to have taken off lately.

Stuart had points in each of the team’s last two games and is seeing almost as much ice time as Trouba.

“I think we complement each other,” he said. “He’s such a good skater, he plays with the puck really well, he love’s skating it up.

“I’m more of a stay-back [defenceman] a lot more, I think defence first.”

Trouba has seven points over the last seven games and has moved into 14th spot on the rookie scoring list, despite having played only 38 games this season due to injuries.

After losing 4-3 to the Nashville Predators last Tuesday, the Jets play host to Western Conference rival Vancouver on Friday, at the MTS Centre.

January hasn’t been kind to the slumping Canucks, who have won just four of the 14 games they’ve played this month. They’ll arrive having lost two in a row to Edmonton and Chicago, respectively.

But they’re still clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference. The Jets were 12th going into Thursday’s games and need to gain a lot of ground if they hope to avoid missing the postseason.

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