When a rash of injuries was close to sending the Winnipeg Jets into a tailspin, coach Paul Maurice called on Dustin Byfuglien to move back to defense. Whether Maurice knew it or not, the move was the best decision he may have made in the year since he’s taken over behind the bench for the Jets.
Byfuglien, who has been moved from defense to forward and now back again throughout his career, isn’t simply excelling as a rearguard, he’s staking his claim as the Jets undisputed MVP in a season where without him all may have been lost. One could even argue he has a shot at the Norris Trophy.
What Byfuglien brings to the backend is incredibly strong skating for a big man, a booming slapshot, and a physical presence that had been missing with injuries. Add to it all that Byfuglien is a positive possession player, can eat considerable minutes, and spared the Jets from throwing returning defensemen Zach Bogosian and Toby Enstrom right into the fire. That alone is enough to give him some consideration as the Jets' most valuable player.
There was much debate about what Maurice should do with his lineup when Bogosian and Enstrom did return, but the answer lies simply in the faith Maurice is showing in the 29-year-old’s game. Before the return of Bogosian and Enstrom, Byfuglien was averaging roughly 27 minutes a game as a blueliner. In Sunday night’s game against the Anaheim Ducks, Byfuglien played nearly 30 minutes, while no other rearguard saw more than 23 minutes on the ice. The second highest time on ice for defenseman was Ben Chiarot, Byfuglien’s partner, and he only saw 22:39 of action.
It’s not just that he’s eating minutes, either – a big reason why Byfuglien is receiving such high praise throughout the league is how well he has been producing while playing as part of Winnipeg’s defense corps. In the 17 games he’s suited up for as a defenseman, Byfuglien has potted four goals and 14 points, and has been held off the score sheet in just six games.
Over the course of a full 82-game season, if Byfuglien’s play were to stay at this rate, it would result in roughly 19 goals and 67 points from the backend from Byfuglien, which is elite level production from a blueliner. Consider that last season’s Norris Trophy winner, Duncan Keith, tallied 61 points, and you have an argument that Byfuglien could have been voted the league’s top defenseman had be been back there all season.
There has also been an incredible thing happening to Winnipeg's underlying numbers since Byfuglien’s move to the blueline. Almost everything is up, and, while the samples are different and could make for some variation, the positive change doesn’t seem like a coincidence. It's where the real argument for Byfuglien's Norris candidacy lies.
In the 17 games Byfuglien has been on defense, Winnipeg’s 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage is seventh best in the NHL, an admirable 53.1 percent. Before his move back to defense, a 26 game span, the Jets boasted a Corsi For of 51.1 percent, 12th in the league. What makes this more outstanding is, during those 26 games before Byfuglien was a defenseman, they were actually starting more shifts in the offensive zone than the current 17-game run with Byfuglien on defense.
Before he was a defender, Winnipeg was starting 51.1 percent of their non-neutral zone faceoffs in the offensive zone. With Byfuglien on defense, that number is 49.4 percent. This means that not only has Winnipeg had better possession numbers with Byfuglien manning the point, they’ve done it while the 6-foot-5 monster has been their go-to defenseman, tasked with dragging them out of bad zone starts.
There are also very interesting things happening when it comes to Winnipeg’s on-ice shooting percentage and PDO over Byfuglien’s tenure as the team’s number one defenseman. It has been noted on multiple occasions this season that the Jets have struggled to score, having one of the league’s worst 5-on-5 shooting percentages. Matter of fact, it wasn’t even one of the league’s worst – it was the worst, with Winnipeg scoring on only 5.8 percent of their 5-on-5 shots before Byfuglien moved back to defense on Dec. 5.
Since then, however, Winnipeg’s shooting percentage has skyrocketed to 9.5 percent. Their goaltending, which has had its 5-on-5 save-percentage drop off a small amount, is the only thing that brings down what is already a high PDO at 101.5, the ninth highest mark in the league. While Winnipeg fans were long waiting for a correction to their shooting percentage, few could have expected this. Byfuglien moving to defense seems to be just what the team needed, and now, instead of begging for the shooting percentage to go up, fans can be content with a slight dip in the number.
Though he’s taking slightly fewer shots per game from the blueline – Byfuglien has averaged 2.88 per night on defense, and had nearly 3.3 per outing as a forward – it’s hard to argue he’s not having a more positive impact from the point. On top of that, the nearly three shots per game from the point would put him in the same company as Erik Karlsson, Keith Yandle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Kris Letang, Brent Burns, and Drew Doughty, to name a few.
Finally, one of the greatest revelations of late is the importance of controlling the game from a scoring chances point of view. Like possession, scoring chances for can help predict future goals, which correlates to future wins. Advanced statistics go-to War-On-Ice.com, where all the data in this article comes from, has this information collected and defined, and it’s definitely worth a look. With Byfuglien as a defenseman, the Jets have been the fourth best team in the league, having a scoring chance for percentage of 56.6. Before Byfuglien moved to defense, Winnipeg was 11th, breaking about even with 50.8 percent of the scoring chances.
If you’re of the mind that Byfuglien was more effective as a forward, don’t let his days as a Chicago Blackhawk cloud your vision. With Winnipeg, he’s been an elite defenseman -- one of the best in the entire league. If Maurice had sent him out as a rearguard to begin the season, we may be talking about Byfuglien for the Norris. And though his half a season on the blueline may hurt his cause, I think fans in Winnipeg will simply take him helping them to the playoffs.