Dustin Byfuglien is taking over Round 2 for the Jets

Big Buff has the stuff on the ice and on the dance floor apparently, even though Dustin Byfuglien says, "I don't know where some of this stuff comes from."

WINNIPEG — Dustin Byfuglien is the rarest of hockey men, a five-tool player in a sport that has so few of those, we have to borrow a baseball term just to accurately describe him.

Size, strength, speed, skill and now a consistent dose of the hockey smarts that always seemed to come and go from his game, Byfuglien has arrived as a superstar this spring in Winnipeg.

Once considered collateral damage in a Chicago Blackhawks salary purge, and the guy who famously tossed Evander Kane’s track suit into the showers that day in Winnipeg, Byfuglien is a quiet Minnesota outdoorsman who’d take a fishing rod and lure ahead of a camera and microphone every day of his week.

But the difference is, he is a focused player now, where once the knock on Byfuglien was that his game would always wander. That he never had the consistency to be a true leader, because you can’t preach what you don’t practise.

“You know, he has been on a mission, right from the start of the season,” said Jets assistant coach Charlie Huddy. “And I can tell you, there have only been a handful of times where he was wandering.”

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At age 33, Byfuglien just turned his number in March. He won his only Stanley Cup back in 2010, got traded to Atlanta, and watched as his career whittled away with a franchise that gave him four lousy playoff games between 2010 and this spring.

He could have left as a free agent, but chose to stay, and decisions like that can focus a guy. Suddenly, being dangerous at both ends of the rink takes on a new meaning for this six-foot-five, 260-pound behemoth. He has five points in the first three games of this series — 3-7-10 in eight playoff games this spring — and Byfuglien has become a physical presence that has the Nashville Predators flummoxed.

“Something kicked in,” Huddy admitted. “He said, ‘We’ve got a chance to be a good hockey team here. I’m going to play the right way.’”

“He brings a lot to the table,” understated Nashville coach Peter Laviolette. “Just his size, his physicality for one. The way he can move is another.”

And so we see the slippery slope begin for Nashville.

In a sport where imposing your physical will on the opponent still matters, Nashville players look up and down their bench for the teammate who can knock Byfuglien on his backside and put a stop to his constant physical dominance. And they can find no one — because that player does not exist.

“I think Buff is the strongest person in the league — hands down,” said Bryan Little, who has known Byfuglien since their days together in Georgia.

Truly, when Byfuglien leaves the scene of the crime, an opponent is almost always picking himself up off the ice. He rag-dolled two Predators at the same time in Game 2, dragging Roman Josi while also handling Nashville’s biggest force, Austin Watson, at the same time in a scrum.

So Byfuglien is killing the Predators in their zone, crushing them in his. And gone from his game are the long, irresponsible forays into the offensive zone that opened up opportunity. That leaves the Predators to try and figure out how to handle a 27-minute defenceman that has taken over the game in his own, unique way.

And it is fair to question if there is truly an answer for Byfuglien, the only player in the league listed as high as 260 lb. whose mobility, dexterity and simple hockey “hands” are commensurate with a player five inches and 70 pounds lighter.

Chris Pronger used to run a series from his spot on the blue line, but it wasn’t quite the same as what Byfuglien is doing this spring.

“You wouldn’t have found (Pronger) around the other team’s net, because he was playing 30 minutes a night. The other 20 he was in the box,” joked Jets had coach Paul Maurice. “Dustin is behind the net with puck possession an awful lot (and) up the ice. I will say this, for a guy that hits … as cleanly as he hits, you don’t see the hands. There are not a lot of guys that size that hit like that who also have really, really pure hands.”

On Byfuglien’s first goal in Game 3, he simply powered a slapshot past goalie Pekka Rinne. It is a shot that has won the Hardest Shot Competition and is among the league’s heaviest.

On his second goal he took a bullet cross-ice pass from Patrik Laine, and from the far edge of the circle one-timed a puck behind Rinne. It was a totally different goal requiring a completely separate set of skills, and when the play was over there was Byfuglien, dancing a little happy dance as the house erupted.

Where did the dance come from?

“I don’t know where some of this stuff comes from,” he shrugged.

His teammates say he is the team prankster. But in front of the media, when he’s not sneaking out the back door, Byfuglien is as boring as his game is electrifying.

“It’s strange for me to see him talking to you guys in front of the camera. It’s like, ‘That’s not who I know,’” said Little.

The Predators are just as puzzled. We were supposed to be talking about their superior defence, but so far, there is one D-man who is running the show in Round 2, and they call him Big Buff.

“He just has that presence out there that he’s going to do something,” marvelled Little. “Whether it’s throw a big hit, or he had a couple of big goals for us last night. Any time he’s on the ice, it’s dangerous.”


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