WINNIPEG — A few rare smiles crossed Dustin Byfuglien’s face as reporters crowded around him after practice Tuesday.
The Winnipeg Jets defenceman is enjoying a season that’s brought him accolades from the NHL and praise from his teammates and coach for being a “special” player.
The NHL’s first star of the week after collecting six points in four games, Byfuglien will take part in the league’s all-star game in Columbus, Ohio, this weekend.
The recognition is coming during a season he says has him feeling more confident and settled in his personal and professional life.
Byfuglien was married last summer to long-time girlfriend Emily Hendry, and in early December head coach Paul Maurice moved him from forward to his preferred position on defence after injuries felled a number of blue-liners.
“I think making her my wife finally has helped out and made things good,” he said with a smile. “I think just all around. Just going back to defence, I just like getting out of my bed and just going to work. It’s something that I enjoy and just kept going with it.”
The Jets (25-14-8) are on a four-game win streak as they get set to host Columbus (20-21-3) on Wednesday for their last game before the all-star break. They hold the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference, five points ahead of Calgary.
The 29-year-old Byfuglien said there’s “absolutely no doubt” he’s playing better defence than in the past.
Former Jets head coach Claude Noel had moved Byfuglien to forward in early January 2014. When Noel was fired a few days later and replaced by Maurice, the new coach kept him in that spot.
Byfuglien noted the Jets have been playing different systems with Maurice and that’s had an impact on everyone.
“As a team we’ve changed our game so much,” he said. “The way we play, and the way we played back then, it’s way different. We feed off each other and you can make plays.”
And the six-foot-five, 260-pound Byfuglien has been making plays and putting up points.
In 47 games, he has 12 goals and 19 assists for 31 points. But 20 of those points have come in the 21 games he’s played defence since Dec. 5.
“He’s unlike anyone,” Jets forward Blake Wheeler said of Byfuglien. “He’s special in a lot of ways.”
That includes Byfuglien’s physical presence, but also his instincts on the ice and the way he reads plays and intercepts pucks, Wheeler explained.
“He’s been dominant since he’s been back on (defence) especially, and he’s been a huge reason for our success.”
Byfuglien hasn’t really changed this season, but he may be feeling better about the way his game is viewed, Wheeler said.
“I think he’s just comfortable now and I think he feels appreciated,” he said. “I think he felt under-appreciated before, you know, with a lot of the things he does and the things he tries to do.
“It can be frustrating as a player to come to work everyday and, kind of, it’s almost like a puppy. You hit him on the head and he keeps coming back for love, and if you don’t get it, it can sometimes wear on you a little bit.
“I think this year he feels appreciated, he feels like what he does is impactful on what we’re trying to do as a team.”
Byfuglien said he’s been following what Maurice has told him to do since he switched back to defence.
“Little things. Doing what I do and not get out of the game plan,” Byfuglien said. “Just stick with it and everything will just come.”
The player fans love to call “Big Buff” has also turned up his physical game.
Rookie defenceman Ben Chiarot has been paired with Byfuglien and said the veteran is helping him make the transition. His friends and family ask him what Byfuglien is like and he tells them he’s a fun guy who likes to joke around on and off the ice.
He also enjoys watching Byfuglien’s physical game.
“He’s so strong and so much bigger than everyone else, he just manhandles guys out there,” Chiarot said. “It’s like he’s playing with kids sometimes, so that’s fun to watch and it’s been impressive to see.”
Maurice said it might not be fair to say Byfuglien is exceeding his expectations on the blue-line.
“There’s never been a doubt that he’s a special player,” he said. “He can really do whatever he sets his mind to do.”
What the future holds for Byfuglien really depends on how having all the defencemen healthy will affect the minutes played, he said. The Blue Jackets contest may feature the return of defenceman Jacob Trouba, who’s missed 16 games with an upper-body injury. Trouba practised Tuesday and is awaiting medical clearance. He’s the last of four key defencemen to return after the rash of injuries.
“I’m in no hurry to get him out of there by any means,” Maurice said. “He’s a defenceman right now and he’s one of the best in the league right now so there’s no need to change that.”
Note: The Jets and CFL’s Blue Bombers announced Tuesday that they were unable to finalize a date to host the Heritage Classic outdoor game at Investors Group Field next season and are “very hopeful” that a date can be secured early in the 2016-17 season.