Winnipeg Jets move Byfuglien to forward as coach seeks to boost production

WINNIPEG – Dustin Byfuglien’s move from defence to forward was made official Friday as coach Claude Noel says the Winnipeg Jets must find ways to boost production and win games.

“What I’m hoping to accomplish, not only with that line, with each line, is production, just positive production and hope we can move forward,” Noel said after practice.

The move was telegraphed Thursday when Byfuglien wore a forward’s jersey during practice, but with a couple of players out with the flu it could be explained away and Noel wouldn’t confirm the change.

Friday, however, there was no pretence.

A line change isn’t all the Jets (19-22-5) need, however, said the coach.

“Let’s make sure we’re clear here. If we’re going to move in any direction we’ve got to get our workboots on that’s the first thing,” Noel said. “I don’t care where you’re playing we’ve got to win battles, we’ve got to get to the hard areas and we’ve got to win in the hard areas. You can juggle all you want.”

No one is sure how long the change will last but Byfuglien will line up with team captain Andrew Ladd and centre Bryan Little when the Jets face the Columbus Blue Jackets Saturday at MTS Centre. Columbus (19-20-4) is one of the teams in the NHL with fewer points than the Jets, although at 42 they’re only one behind.

Byfuglien made a very brief appearance last season as a forward, a position he tried with the Chicago Blackhawks as well before moving back to defence, and Noel wasn’t saying how long he might remain in that position this time.

It means Blake Wheeler moves to a line with Devin Setoguchi and Olli Jokinen, and for now it appears Evander Kane is out with an injured hand.

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Noel said he didn’t know how long Kane might be gone. Kane was one of several Jets whose frustration as the Jets floundered in Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning boiled over in scraps with opposing players.

Little and Ladd say after losing four in a row, it’s not hard to see why Noel would want to shake things up a bit.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Little.

“(Byfuglien’s) the kind of guy who can play any position out there. He’s really offensively gifted and you know right now we really kind of need a spark.”

Byfuglien wasn’t talking about the move Friday but Little says it looks like he’s enjoying it.

“I think you’re trying to find ways to make a group and different ways to get the team going,” said Ladd.

“With four losses in a row, I think we’d be worried if you weren’t trying different things.”

Byfuglien’s offensive skills are proven and he’s currently tied with Little at 34 points as the team’s top scorer. But he’s also a team worst minus-16, although he also spends a lot more time on the ice than any other player.

Moving him to forward might prevent some of the defensive slips that have led to goals.

Wheeler, who shook off his own early scoring slump and now sits in second place for the Jets with 33 points, says he isn’t looking at his move as a demotion.

“It can give some guys some life and some energy,” he said. “You see some new faces and sometimes sparks fly.”