Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel made it official on Friday that he's rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Noel is moving defenseman Dustin Byfuglien to forward on the top line for the team's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday night. The decision comes in the wake of the Jets losing their fourth straight game on Tuesday night and sitting 10 points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
It's a peculiar move, as Byfuglien is hardly the problem with the Jets and hasn't played forward in nearly four years. Every finger in Manitoba should be pointed directly at Ondrej Pavelec, who is in the midst of his fifth consecutive season as one of the league's poorest goaltenders.
However, Noel is instead using one of his top players as a forward in an attempt to spark a team that is careening directly toward an iceberg.
Playing forward isn't Byfuglien's preference, but he has experience there from his time with the Chicago Blackhawks, when coach Denis Savard moved him up front during the 2007-08 season. During the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, his 6'5", 265-pound frame was routinely parked in front of opposing goaltenders, which cleared space for the likes of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
The Blackhawks won a Stanley Cup that year, but salary-cap issues forced the team to trade Byfuglien to the Atlanta Thrashers, where he returned to defense. He has been on the blue line ever since.
During Byfuglien's first season in Atlanta, then-general-manager Rick Dudley spoke with John Manasso of NHL.com about where to play him:
I know Dustin likes to play defense. That was one thing.… Denis Savard needed Dustin up front and he moved to forward and did pretty well, obviously. He's an inordinately talented guy. I won't deny that. He's very effective. I once had this conversation with Savvy at the end of one of year. He said, "See, Duds, he's a forward. He's got 19 goals as a forward.' But I said, ‘What if he had a 15-goal season as a defenseman?" Good question.
Dudley was right about one thing—Byfuglien has been outstanding offensively as a defenseman. He scored 20 goals in his first season with the Thrashers/Jets and is third in the NHL in scoring among defensemen this season with 34 points in 46 games.
The problem for Byfuglien has been defense, a key part of being a defenseman. Real-time stats are an inexact science, but Byfuglien's 55 giveaways are the second-most in the NHL. He is a career-worst minus-16, which is also an imperfect statistic, but it's the worst plus/minus rating of his nine-year career.
If you prefer advanced statistics, Byfuglien has been pretty good at driving possession this season. According to ExtraSkater.com, he's a positive Corsi player on a poor possession team.
However, he has been on the ice for a massive amount of goals against (74) and his on-ice save percentage is .874.
Is that because of Byfuglien's giveaways and defensive play or Pavelec's status as one of the worst starting goaltenders in the NHL? Winnipeg's starter currently sports a 3.06 goals-against average and .901 save percentage.
It's more than likely the latter, as his possession numbers in the face of tough competition show he's been fine on defense. Byfuglien isn't the best defenseman in the league by any stretch, but he's hardly to blame for the club's defensive woes.
What does this switch mean for Byfuglien?
It could be great for him and work out the same way it did for Brent Burns in San Jose. Burns was struggling on defense last season and the Sharks had holes up front to fill, so Todd McLellan made the switch and has stuck with it through this season.
Burns has 14 goals and 26 points in 32 games this season as a forward and his move up front has allowed McLellan to use promising young defenseman Justin Braun more prominently.
Moving Byfuglien to forward is more of a desperation move for the Jets, as journeymen Adam Pardy and Keaton Ellerby are the top candidates to pick up the slack on defense.
The Jets can shuffle their lines and play Byfuglien anywhere they want, but as long Pavelec isn't making saves, the Jets are doomed for yet another failed season.
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