By Kristina Rutherford in Winnipeg
By Kristina Rutherford in Winnipeg
The playoffs are a long shot for the Winnipeg Jets this season but Dustin Byfuglien—one of the NHL's most unique leaders—believes his team has the pieces to contend for the Cup in years to come.

About halfway through pre-season training camp, Paul Maurice sought out the advice of one of the most opinionated people on the Winnipeg Jets staff. In his three seasons with the team, the coach had noticed and even come to rely on this guy’s eye for identifying talent. Sure, he never consulted video or looked at stats. And yeah, nobody actually paid him to scout. But Maurice still pulled him aside one day after practice. Dustin Byfuglien had plenty to report.

“I don’t know why he’s here,” Byfuglien said of one player in camp. “This guy’s a good player,” he told Maurice, of another. Then two more rapid-fire evaluations: “This guy’s pretty good. Not this guy.”

Maurice asked Byfuglien about Winnipeg’s first-round pick in 2013, 21-year-old defenceman Josh Morrissey, who’d spent the season prior with the Manitoba Moose. “I want the kid,” Byfuglien told the coach. “Put me with the kid.”

When the season opened a few weeks later, the Jets’ No. 1 defensive pairing was Buff and the kid.

The biggest man on the Jets roster is not a leader in the conventional sense. He’s not the type to give riveting pre-game speeches — the thought of that brings a smile to his bearded face, because he’s more likely to pull a prank on a guy who’s looking a little too serious than sit him down for a chat. But Byfuglien, the only player on the roster who’s lifted the Stanley Cup, sets the tone for the league’s second-youngest team. And it’s the same relaxed and outspoken one that’s defined his entire career.

Barring a near miracle, this year’s Jets will disappoint and finish outside the playoff picture yet again. But in them, Byfuglien sees great potential — a roster of kids who are already stars or who will be soon. The group reminds Byfuglien what it was like to be part of the young Chicago Blackhawks team he grew up with, and won with. It’s why he signed a contract extension to remain a Jet through 2020–21. The seeds have already been planted in Winnipeg, and Byfuglien knows they’ll grow into a deep run. And the 31-year-old will help this young group become contenders. He’ll just do it in his own way.

Making an impact
Byfuglien doesn't often offer advice to his younger teammates, but his constant effort and physical play set the tone in Winnipeg.

When Big Buff was little, he hated the idea of wearing skates. They looked uncomfortable, so he wouldn’t put them on. But the son of a single mother, Cheryl, who drove a forklift at a local snowmobile plant, still played plenty of hockey. That’s what you did in tiny Roseau, Minnesota, a city of 2,600 just south of the Manitoba border. Byfuglien whizzed around the ice in his boots.

“I finally put on skates around seven,” he says, his massive shoulders filling a stall in the empty Jets dressing room on an off-day. He picked it up in no time, though. “I had no problem skating,” he says. “And you could skate all day [in Roseau], you could play a game any time — there was always 10 or 15 kids at the rink.”

By the time he got to high school, Byfuglien had the talent to play on one of the best teams in his hockey-obsessed home state, the Roseau Rams. But he wasn’t eligible. “Grades,” he explains with a shrug. “School wasn’t my cup of tea.” He didn’t really care that he couldn’t be a Ram, though. Byfuglien still got to practice with the team, and the best part was, his weekends were free. “I was like, ‘Whatever, I’ll just go do something different. I’ll go fishing, I’ll go snowmobiling,’” he says. “It was probably the best winter of my life.”

Despite the lacklustre grades, with noticeable size and a blend of physicality and offensive skill on the point, the defenceman attracted attention. At 15, he got a call from a AAA club called the Chicago Mission and moved to the city — a 12-hour drive from Roseau — to play for a season. “I think that’s when I realized that, alright, I can actually, probably, maybe, do something, a little bit, with this hockey stuff,” he says. Spoken like a true future Norris Trophy candidate.

“I believe we’re a step or two away from being a great playoff team — and for years to come.”

A year later, Byfuglien moved to Brandon, Man., to play with the Western Hockey League’s Wheat Kings. He was later traded to Prince George, where he put up 37 points in 48 games in the 2002–03 season, ahead of that summer’s NHL draft. Still, he wasn’t expecting any team to “take a chance” on him, as he puts it, despite the fact he had eight more points than fellow D-man Dion Phaneuf, who would be selected ninth-overall that year. Byfuglien didn’t have an agent, and he hadn’t put much thought into a career in the NHL.

He found out he’d been drafted by Chicago when a couple of men wearing clothes covered in Blackhawks logos showed up at his family home. He’d paid no attention to the draft, so he sure didn’t know what happened in the eighth round, when his name came up, 245th overall. (Jets teammate Patrik Laine says of Byfuglien being picked that late: “I can’t even believe that right now.”) The Blackhawks hadn’t been able to get a hold of Byfuglien by phone, hence the visit. “They said, ‘Pick up your phone,’” Byfuglien recalls, laughing. “We used to always just let it ring.”

Byfuglien spent most of his first two professional seasons with the AHL affiliate Norfolk Admirals, and it took time to learn to be a pro. His first nearly full season with the Blackhawks came in 2007–08, on a young team that included 18-year-old Patrick Kane and 19-year-old Jonathan Toews. Two seasons later, Byfuglien converted from the point to forward, and in 2010 Chicago hoisted the Stanley Cup. He was 24 years old.

Faces of the franchise
Byfuglien sees real potential in Laine, Ehlers and the rest of his team's young core. "There’s a chance we could be right at the top," he says.

Traded to Atlanta in a blockbuster the summer after that Cup win, Byfuglien is now in his sixth year with the Jets and 12th in the NHL. He scans the Winnipeg dressing room, taking in the names listed on the empty stalls around him. There’s Laine, who came into this league and impressed Buff because he immediately acted like a pro at 18. There’s Morrissey, Byfuglien’s apprentice early on, who he says has “probably been our most steady D-man.” Mark Scheifele, 23 and already one of the best centremen in the league. And sophomore left-winger Nikolaj Ehlers, now 21, who has seen a huge improvement from Year 1.

“You’ll see that growth every year from the young guys, and by the time they’re in their fourth year, you’re like, ‘Alright, this guy knows what he’s doing.’ You don’t have to worry about him,” Byfuglien says. “It’s part of growing up.”

Since the Jets returned to Winnipeg, they’ve made the playoffs just once, two years ago. Anaheim swept them in four games. This season, goaltending looks to be the reason the Jets will continue that streak of disappointment, again finishing outside the playoff picture. But Byfuglien knows the future is bright. “I feel like there’s a chance we could be right at the top,” he says. “With what I’ve seen, getting good picks and other little things, I believe we’re a step or two away from being a great playoff team — and for years to come.”

That’s how it happened in Chicago. The Blackhawks missed the playoffs Byfuglien’s rookie season, then made it the year after. The progression continued, until he raised the Cup. “I was part of the growing up stage there, and now I’m on the other side of it,” Byfuglien says, “watching it and hoping that it happens again.”

The puck enters Winnipeg’s zone, and Byfuglien picks up streaking San Jose Sharks defenceman, Justin Braun, who’s on his way to the net. Byfuglien’s D-partner, Toby Enstrom, is after the puck carrier, Marcus Sorensen, who’s wheeling up the right wing. Sorensen cuts toward the net and Byfuglien moves to meet him there. Just before all four converge on Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, Byfuglien takes out Braun, Sorensen, and Enstrom — his own teammate — with a single hit, like a six-foot-five, 260-lb. wrecking ball. Then Byfuglien falls on top of the pile he creates. It’s a wonder nobody’s hurt.

A day later, a mention of the play draws a smile, but it’s a highlight Byfuglien probably won’t see, because he doesn’t watch sports. Ever. You may find him carving a hole in the ice to go fishing this time of year, but never sitting in front of a TV to watch a game. Like school, he says, sports “aren’t my cup of tea.”

When it comes to his own team, he hears rumblings about prospects from other guys in the dressing room. He knew the Jets had drafted Laine second overall in 2016, of course, but that was about it. “I didn’t know anything about him,” Byfuglien says.

“He brings it every night. He sets that standard. He’s somebody a lot of our guys can look up to.”

He first saw Laine play last September at the World Cup. Laine took the ice for Finland in a pre-tournament game against Byfuglien’s own Team USA. Byfuglien watched Laine set up on his off-wing on the power play and wire a wrist shot, bar down. His first thought, he deadpans: “Is this kid supposed to make our team?” Seriously, though. “I looked over and I was like, ‘I think I get to pass to him all year. He can shoot that puck. I had a smile on my face and I was thinking, ‘Yeah, this guy’s gonna make our team.’”

Byfuglien recently scored his 10th of the season, banging in his own rebound against Pittsburgh. He marvels at Laine’s release. “It’s one of those things I think every player wishes they had. It’s unique. It comes off super nice, and it looks effortless,” he says.

Laine, who’s two goals behind Sidney Crosby for the league lead, and pacing all rookies with 60 points, is the youngest player on a team the Finn points out feels young all around because “it’s not like everybody else is so old.” There are nine players in Winnipeg’s starting lineup age 23 or younger. At 33, Chris Thorburn is the grey beard on the team with Byfuglien, who turns 32 later this month, trailing just behind.

A reassuring presence
"He made it easy as a young guy to just play and be confident," Morrissey says of Byfuglien.

Statistically, this hasn’t been Byfuglien’s strongest year — he has twice put up 20-goal seasons in this league, though that was when he played right-wing. (Maurice was adamant he remain a forward until the Jets suffered a rash of injuries to their blue line in 2014, forcing Byfuglien to move back.) But regardless of the numbers, Maurice says this has been the most positive season from his No. 1 defenceman. “I think we’re seeing the most growth in his game,” he explains. “Dustin’s rounding out into being a bit more patient. He’s played defence for a while, but he’s not a 30-year-old guy that played 12 years of defence in the league, so some of this is new to him. He’s still growing.”

Byfuglien leads the league in time-on-ice, logging more than 27 minutes a game. He plays on the power play and penalty kill, and leads the Jets in both penalty minutes (his 101 are good for fifth in the league) and blocked shots. “There aren’t many guys like him in the NHL, so we’re lucky to have him,” says Jets captain Blake Wheeler. The right-winger points out that Byfuglien’s physical play gives him plenty of reasons to feel lucky they’re on the same team. “If I ever have to play against him,” Wheeler says, “I’m gonna stay away from him.”

But Byfuglien’s most important contribution may be the example he provides for the young guys around him. “He brings it every night,” Wheeler says. “He sets that standard. Even if his hands aren’t going, he’s playing physical, he’s engaged in the game. He’s somebody a lot of our guys can look up to.”

“He loves playing the game, and everything he does is so energetic. I think it rubs off on everyone else.”

Morrissey, who’s now most often paired with 23-year-old Jacob Trouba, credits Byfuglien for helping him feel comfortable out of the gate as a rookie. It was hard to feel nervous with Byfuglien as his partner early in the season. “Maybe I have a rough shift, I turn the puck over, we go to the bench and he cracks a joke,” says Morrissey. “He knows that’s what you need in that situation. There was never any pressure as a pairing, so he made it easy as a young guy to just play and be confident, and to have fun out there.”

Byfuglien is constantly talking on the ice, whether he’s ribbing a teammate or calling for the puck. Morrissey might have a long shift, and a good one, and he’ll be skating off for the line change. “Stay out there!” Byfuglien will yell at him. “You’re doing great!”

Morrissey laughs, thinking of those moments. “He loves playing the game, and everything he does is so energetic,” he says. “You can see it on his face. I think it rubs off on everyone else.”

Maurice seconds that. “It’s the thing I like the most about him,” the coach says. “He even loves to practice, and that’s important for people to see. He’s got that presence.”

Byfuglien says it took time to figure out how to bring that intensity on the ice without forgetting he’s playing a game for a living. “I try to keep everything laughable, because there’s been years where it hasn’t been a good year,” he says. “You come to work, you’re not excited to come to work. I know what those years feel like, so I’ve learned to come to work and be happy that we’re at the rink every day.”

If anybody’s skate or jock goes missing in the Jets dressing room, everybody knows the culprit: It’s the alternate captain with the self-proclaimed “attitude of an 18-year-old.”

This is not to say there aren’t times that Byfuglien feels his age around this group of young Jets. Much has changed since he was a rookie back in 2005–06. “Kids are different now,” Byfuglien says, eyes widening. “There’s phones now — they’re the first thing you see, all the time. We had cell phones, but text messaging wasn’t very big. Now you got Twitter, you got everything. Everyone can go on their phone and Google anything you need to figure out. You can’t sit and argue with anybody anymore.” Byfuglien shakes his head and smiles. “This is a young room, but you adapt to the lifestyle. You’ve got the older guys and you got the young guys. For the most part, the kids have been really good, listening and taking advice.”

Well, only once they put their phones down, right? “That’s a hard one,” Byfuglien says, laughing. “My kids won’t even listen to me on that one.”

No. 33 says the young guys aren’t going to him for advice all that often, and he isn’t one to offer it up unless he can see someone really needs it. “I just do my own thing,” he says.

From time to time, his teammates will ask him what it was like to win. Usually he’ll tell them a little story, but sometimes, he doesn’t even do that.

“It’s something you can’t explain, you just have to be a part of it and go do it,” Byfuglien says. “It’s one of those things that, instead of asking, why don’t we just go achieve it?”

Photo Credits

Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images (2); John Woods/CP (2)