WINNIPEG – The experiment is only a couple of games old, but new Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice says he’s leaving Dustin Byfuglien at forward for now.
“I’m going to leave him there until I . . . see something that I need to change,” he said Tuesday. “That may be next week, that may be next month, that may be never. But I’m not making a decision until I need to.”
Maurice was impressed with how Byfuglien played in Winnipeg’s 5-1 win over the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday night.
“I think I have a pretty good handle on what he’s capable of doing and I think you saw that,” the coach said after a short but intense practice.
Byfuglien had two assists versus Phoenix and remains the third highest-scoring defenceman in the league with 37 points. He still jumps back in on the point on power plays although at even strength he plays forward.
“Sometimes it’s a little tough to stay on the point but it’s good I get out there a little more,” Byfuglien says.
“I’m more comfortable on D so it’s a lot easier to go back there and just feel comfortable and know that I’m doing a lot better.”
Although he played forward with the Chicago Blackhawks, Byfuglien says he still doesn’t feel all that comfortable in the role with the Jets.
“Definitely not. It will take a few weeks for that one.”
Maurice was pleased overall with the energy level the team showed Tuesday and says there may be too much focus on Byfuglien, in particular if he makes a mistake when many other players in a similar position go unnoticed.
“We are a far better hockey team with Dustin Byfuglien at forward or at D playing close to his abilities,” Maurice said. “That’s my goal. . . At the end of the day, if I’ve got a guy I feel can play at the back end and up front, then that’s (a) best-case scenario.”
Maurice replaced Claude Noel, fired on the weekend as the Jets floundered and lost five in a row.
Noel left the new coach a note that Maurice said he didn’t get a chance to read immediately. But after reading it Monday, he had nothing but praise for his predecessor.
“The point was there are very special people here, it’s a great town, he made that point, great organization and great players. When you get fired, you’re dealing with a lot of tough emotions. For him to take time, that just shows how much he cares and the quality of man that he is. . .
“He grew to love the team and the town and he was a good coach.”
He said he wants to thank Noel for the good work that he did with the team that might have gone unappreciated with his firing.
“And I’m speaking from experience.”
Maurice was fired by the Carolina Hurricanes (twice) and the Toronto Maples Leafs.
After the win the players were a lot more upbeat than they have been for weeks, although they know it was just one game.
“It was good to get back on track but this is a process so we need to bring that same level of energy every night,” said forward Blake Wheeler, who enjoyed hearing cheers instead of jeers from fans.
“It’s been tough. We know when we deserve to get booed off the ice. We know when we deserve to get cheered on.”
The word “playoffs” even re-entered the Jets’ vocabulary, although at 20-23-5 they’re still tied on points for last place in the Central Division with the Nashville Predators.
“Our goal at the start of the year was to make the playoffs and you’re never out of it until you’re out of it,” said rookie forward Mark Scheifele, the team’s No. 1 draft pick in 2011 who has seven goals and 24 points so far this season and sits fifth among rookie scorers in the NHL.
“There’s still a lot of games left. All we have to do is make a good push and play as a team.”