Ask around about Dustin Byfuglien, whether now or next year, and someone will almost surely sum up the Winnipeg Jets’ enigmatic star with a familiar adage: “Buff’s Buff.”
They aren’t referring to his fitness level, though Byfuglien’s apparently leaner frame has been a hot topic in Winnipeg since he arrived at training camp. Rather, it is a phrase tossed off with a slight shrug, capturing the challenge of explaining his enormous talent, rare versatility, and occasionally frustrating nonchalance.
But the Jets’ fortunes for the foreseeable future may depend heavily on whether Buff being Buff comes to mean he is fulfilling his massive potential, or failing to meet expectations night in and night out. To many, he is the face of the franchise, even if he wears the mantle reluctantly, and there is palpable hope that he has arrived for his third season as a Jet ready to soar to new heights.
Not that he would admit to it.
“No,” he replies when asked whether he feels any different to start the season. “I mean, it was another good summer. Just enjoyed myself and did what I had to do.”
And what of the buzz that he might soon make the leap to contending for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenceman?
Does he aspire to that honour?
“No. I just play hockey. It’s my job. And, uh, I just come here to be the best and do what I do,” he says in a soft, even tone.
With Byfuglien, this counts as chatty. He can be vocal on the ice, but is a man of few words off of it – that is his natural demeanour, say team executives, not simply a mask put on for media. His mother Cheryl Byfuglien, who raised him to his teens in a trailer home, and stepfather Dale Smedsmo, who had to drag a younger Byfuglien into work at his sporting goods store in Minnesota, have described him in interviews as intrinsically laid back and quiet.
As an NHL star, Byfuglien stands apart. At practice, he often lingers by the boards, off to the side, looking lumbering at times, but moving with confounding agility and grace moments later. He can switch between defence and forward with apparent ease. His jersey is a hot seller at the MTS Centre’s merchandise shop, but still not so popular as those of captain Andrew Ladd or brash winger Evander Kane.
Now, at 28, the hulking defender hasn’t played in a playoff game since he hoisted the Stanley Cup as a Chicago Blackhawk in 2010, his legal troubles stemming from a 2011 impaired-boating charge are behind him, and there are signs that he has found renewed determination to carry his team to its first playoff berth since moving to Winnipeg two years ago.
Arriving at training camp, he weighed in at an official 265 pounds, after reports suggested he had topped 300 late last season. And teammate Eric Tangradi, who joined the Jets last year in a trade from Pittsburgh, has noticed a difference.
“He just seems like he has a different demeanour to him. Whether that means he’s fed up with the way things have been going the last few years and he wants to win now, it looks like there’s definitely a little bit more hunger in his eyes,” Tangradi said. “I almost think that he has maybe a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. He’s a guy that, when he wants to, can take over games.”
So far, Jets coach Claude Noel likes what he has seen. “I think Dustin’s been very good for two games for us,” he said after Friday’s win against Los Angeles. “For me, he played big, he played physical, he was strong, he did a lot of good things. He moved the puck, he had good outlets, got shots through to the net. … It’s a little bit more of the consistency we’re looking for.”
The Winnipeg faithful are hopeful, too, but still unsure what to expect. “I don’t know, it’s hard to tell,” said fan Darryl Kruk, sporting a Byfuglien jersey he bought before Buff had played a single game for the Jets. “I mean, he still hasn’t hit his prime as far as I’m concerned. He can go higher.”
Yet for all the talk of what may be different about Byfuglien this year, he remains as hard to pin down as ever – and it seems unlikely that will change.
“Buff’s Buff,” Kane said after practice last week, “and he might look a little slimmer, but he’s the same player.”