It’s not a hard and fast rule, but, generally speaking, players who are in line to earn themselves a new deal tend to outdo themselves. For Dustin Byfuglien, that meant the 2015-16 campaign was his chance to shine and show that he was worth the big money he was hoping to command. And by February 2016, with Byfuglien on pace for another 50-point season and the highest average ice time of his career, the Jets ponied up the dollars and paid him handsomely. He landed a five-year, $38-million deal.
After a player signs their big-money deal, the worry is there could be a slight let down, that he might rest on his laurels and turn in a season that’s not quite as good as that which led to the payday. In the case of Byfuglien, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth. This season has seen Byfuglien score just as well, hit just as hard and, more than anything, become a bigger part of the game-to-game performance of the Jets than he has ever before.
While Winnipeg’s performance as a whole has been up and down — with admittedly more downs than ups given the team has less than a 20 percent chance of making the post-season — Byfuglien has been a rock on the backend. His scoring prowess and ability to drive up the ice like a runaway train continue to be two of his greatest assets, as they have been for the past several seasons. His nine goals and 39 points put him into a tie for sixth in scoring among all rearguards, and were it not for his uncharacteristically low shooting percentage, Byfuglien would likely be among the two or three top scorers in the league. A career 7.1 percent shooter, he would have 13 goals if he was shooting at his normal clip. Instead, Byfuglien’s nine goals have come on 4.8 percent shooting.
That said, his 24 points at 5-on-5 is fourth-best among defenseman, his eight goals third-best at five-a-side and only Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Colton Parayko have more primary assists at 5-on-5 than the nine Byfuglien has compiled. On offensive performance alone, Byfuglien could be considered one of the best defenders in the league. However, his claim to one of the better defensive seasons of the year comes from the fact he’s playing nearly half of every outing, driving play and is consistently facing off against top competition.
As of Friday, Byfuglien is averaging 27:25 per game, the highest ice time of any player in the league. The usual suspects are up alongside Byfuglien, of course. Drew Doughty is 10 seconds off of Byfuglien’s average, Ryan Suter a single second behind Doughty with Rasmus Ristolainen and Erik Karlsson rounding out the top five. Byfuglien leads the league in 5-on-5 minutes, too, with nearly 1,290 at full strength. And in those minutes, Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice is consistently putting him out against the opponents’ top line. No Jets defender faces a higher quality of competition on a nightly basis, yet Byfuglien has managed to produce a 50.8 Corsi For percentage.
Making that all the more impressive is that Byfuglien isn’t accomplishing this while playing alongside one of the Jets other top defenders. Tyler Myers has missed all but 11 games, Toby Enstrom has been sidelined the past five games and eight games over the course of the season, and Jacob Trouba didn’t enter the lineup until mid-November. That has made rookie Josh Morrissey Byfuglien’s partner for much of the campaign. The duo has worked well together and their numbers would no doubt look that much better if Winnipeg had gotten better than average goaltending to this point in the season.
The shame of all this is that no matter how well Byfuglien has played, he’s got absolutely no chance at winning the Norris Trophy. Really, no one not named Brent Burns does, because the offensive tear Burns is on is nearing historic proportions and the rumblings for him to win the Hart Trophy are legitimate. He’s been that good. That said, this looks like it could result in the best Norris finish for Byfuglien in his time as a defender. His previous best came the past two seasons with two consecutive 12th-place finishes. The better of the two was in 2014-15, when he received 21 total votes.
Given the way Byfuglien has performed this year, though, you could make the argument that he has to be in the conversation as a finalist for the award. Sure, it’s unlikely given the Jets stand to miss the post-season, but his play has warranted consideration as one of the three top Norris vote-getters. The list of players who have been better is a short one, and Byfuglien’s numbers can stand up against those of Doughty, Karlsson, Suter and Duncan Keith.
But no matter where Byfuglien finishes, it’s almost a no-brainer that he should have the best Norris finish of his career, and the timing couldn’t be better as Byfuglien proves that the Jets were right to shell out big money to keep ‘Big Buff’ in Winnipeg.
(All advanced statistics via Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com)
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