It’s natural for a coach to make a visible roster shakeup immediately after being hired. It puts his stamp on the team and that’s exactly what Paul Maurice has done with the Winnipeg Jets. He clarified to media Tuesday the experiment of moving blueliner Dustin Byfuglien to forward – put into motion by Claude Noel before being fired – was more than just an experiment, as it will continue indefinitely. Byfufglien’s only appearances on the point will come on the power play.
On the surface, purely from a Winnipeg standpoint, the idea makes enough sense. Byfuglien hasn’t regularly played the wing since his final days as a Chicago Blackhawk: the 2010 playoffs. He was highly effective as an immovable object in front of the net, racking up 11 goals and 16 points in 22 games during the Hawks’ Stanley Cup run. While he’s dazzled aplenty on defense since being traded to the Thrashers/Jets franchise the ensuing summer, he’s done so almost exclusively as an offensive weapon. Playing actual defense, he’s been frustrating to watch. He gambles too much. He’s a minus-16, far and away a career-worst mark, and his 55 giveaways are the fifth-most in the NHL (though this stat reflects ice time more than anything, as Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty are among the leaders, too).
But what does moving Byfuglien to forward mean for Winnipeg in the big picture? More specifically, what does it mean for Big Buff’s trade value?
Through 48 games, the Jets sit 10 points out of a playoff spot with four teams to pass for the final Western Conference wild card berth. The big dance, barring a miracle to rival the 2007 Colorado Rockies, ain’t gonna happen. It makes sense to sell some pieces and Byfuglien’s name has popped up in the rumor mill all season long. He has only a limited no trade clause, meaning he can veto a deal to five different teams, but some team of the 24 eligible suitors has likely kicked the tires on acquiring him…
…as a blueliner. Sticking Byfuglien at forward is a vote of non-confidence for his ability as a defenseman. It could scare teams off or, more likely, lead to lowball offers to GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. And considering Byfuglien’s $5.2-million cap hit through 2015-16, he’s a less attractive trade target for any hypothetical team that would become “interested in him as a forward.” He’s more of an unknown commodity and thus more of a financial risk as a forward.
Playing up front only hurts Big Buff’s value. Even if the Jets are putting him there to mask his flaws, it’s a transparent strategy. They aren’t thinking things through. Or they really do intend to keep Byfuglien long-term. On a sinking ship, that’s a questionable strategy.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin