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Two of the league's best offensive defensemen go head-to-head in this week's Cage Match.


 

Over the past three seasons only Erik Karlsson has scored more points as a defenseman than either Dustin Byfuglien or Keith Yandle. That should give you a hint that we are headed for a tight Cage Match. Off the top of my head I would say flip a coin and go home happy either way. These are elite defensemen so it is hard to go wrong. But you, the readers, demand satisfaction and it is my sworn duty to provide it. So let’s get at ‘er.

 

We will start with Byfuglien who has apparently decided to finally take an interest in off-season fitness after years of what I’ll generously call carelessness. A svelte Byfuglien is phenomenon we have not seen before and there is no telling what the sum total of all the changes his new shape creates for him.

 

Byfuglien has made a career out of being a physical anomaly. The things he could do at his size made him an absolute terror. Byfuglien had the skill and skating ability to rush the puck end-to-end like a much smaller man but with his size he became an unstoppable force carrying the puck through the middle.

 

The Jets (technically the Thrashers) were able to harness this ability by moving him back to defense such that he was better situated to make these end-to-end rushes. The result was that Byfuglien blitzed the league for 41 points in the first 42 games of the 2010-11. His luck eventually ran out as the league caught on to him and his numbers fizzled down the stretch that season but Byfuglien has remained a hit on the Jets’ blue line with 134 points in 190 games since joining the franchise.

 

Will Byfuglien continue to be the same anomaly if he is carrying less weight? He probably can as I am sure he has not lost a ton of strength with the weight loss but there is certainly the possibility that he will be less of a burden on his opponents now that he has lost sheer mass.

 

This will no doubt help Byfuglien’s mobility but I have to re-iterate that a lot of what made Byfuglien so damned impressive was how mobile he was at his former size. The hope has to be that this move will add more than it removes but in terms of pure ability this is probably a neutral move. Whatever gains are made in mobility will be most helpful to Byfuglien when playing in the defensive zone since that’s where he is required to use shorter bursts of speed the most.

 

One area where this weight loss could have an impact is health but I am just as split on the possible consequences in this regard. Byfuglien has never been injured all that much. To be sure he has missed 21 games over the past two seasons, which is not an insignificant amount but he only missed six games over the previous three seasons so you cannot peg him as a Band-Aid Boy.

 

It is likely that the much heavier minutes on defense (he skated 24:24 minutes per game last season) have increased the wear and tear on Byfuglien, which is why he has missed more over the past couple seasons than in the previous three but that doesn’t really answer the question of whether or not Byfuglien’s health will be impacted by a loss in weight.

 

Byfuglien’s size has made him an intimidating opponent to hit and has likely spared him some collisions over the years of course it may have also given him the confidence to create his own collisions given his added cushioning. And perhaps that cushioning has really helped Byfuglien absorb the punishment that has come his way over the years. I honestly have no idea if losing the weight will make him healthier or not because there just aren’t enough examples of players with his physique playing in the NHL. I am, however, inclined to see this as a positive since the long term health benefits are so tremendous and should do wonders for Byfuglien’s longevity. But short term, who knows if he gets banged up more than before. My guess is that the difference will be negligible.

 

This weight loss brings up some funny thoughts though - what was his motivation?

 

Was he finally scared straight from his legal battles?

 

Did he simply have a change in perspective?

 

Is he jacked up from his invitation to the Team USA Olympic Orientation Camp?

 

Did the Jets light a fire under his ass?

 

I have no answer to the first two questions but I’d have to say that he is definitely pumped to have been invited to the orientation camp. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that Byfuglien will be extremely motivated to play well this season in an attempt to earn a spot on the US Olympic Team. Of course, Yandle was also invited to the orientation camp so their level of motivation, on paper, should be equal. In any case, this may have been one of the reasons for Byfuglien’s lost weight.

 

So how about the Jets applying internal pressure then? I’d imagine that was also the case considering the Jets’ sizable investment in Byfuglien and the growing organizational depth on the blue line with blue chip prospect Jacob Trouba expected to join the team next season. It’s even possible the Jets pushed for Byfuglien to lose weight for a possible position change.

 

Remember that Byfuglien did win a Cup with the Blackhawks as a winger and the Jets even experimented with Byfuglien on the wing last season. It was deemed a failure at that point but with a slimmer body Byfuglien could be ready for a move. It makes a ton of sense on paper when you consider the Jets’ depth chart for next season projects something like what follows:

 

Ladd – Little – Wheeler

Kane – Scheifele – Setoguchi

Tangradi – Jokinen – Frolik

Peluso – Slater – Thorburn

 

Enstrom – Byfuglien

Clitsome – Bogosian

Stuart – Trouba

Pardy – Postma

 

That’s right, the Jets have eight NHL(ish) calibre defensemen signed for next season and that’s without considering Zach Redmond who proved himself a quality NHL player before having his quad cut open in a freak accident during practice. It would behoove the Jets to make some sort of move to clear out space on the blue line somehow, especially when you consider the lack of depth up front.

 

It won’t be long before the Jets discover what the Sharks and Wild already had: that Devin Setoguchi just isn’t all that good – at least not for long stretches anyhow. They would also benefit a ton by adding anything in the way of LW depth considering that Peluso is a goon and Tangradi has yet to prove he is an NHL regular yet.

 

Moving Byfuglien to the first or second line RW slot moves Setoguchi down to the third line (where he belongs) and allows Frolik to slide over to the left side (he is a lefty after all) or some other permutation. That would be killing several birds with one freshly trimmed stone.

 

That sort of move would also open up a number of other questions the most important being: how would that affect his production?

 

I can’t see Byfuglien being moved off the point on the top power play unit. The Jets’ power play was dead last in the league in efficiency last season but that was mostly because Tobias Enstrom was lost for much of the year to injury. The Jets were 12th in efficiency each of the previous two seasons with the Enstrom-Byfuglien pairing manning the point. Byfuglien’s huge shot, solid instincts and mobility make him very dangerous on the point so keeping him there makes a ton of sense, at least until Trouba or Bogosian proves themselves capable of taking over that role.

 

The Blackhawks did utilize Byfuglien as a net presence on their power play when he was with Chicago and he was an absolute menace but the Jets have players such as Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd or Blake Wheeler they may want to put in those positions instead. Whatever the case may be it’s hard to see much of a dent being put in Byfuglien’s 3:35 minutes of power play time per game from last season.

 

Byfuglien would see a severe drop in minutes overall because forwards simply do not see as much ice time as defensemen but as a top six winger he’d be a lock for 16+ minutes a game, which is all you need to be productive as a forward. There would be some questions about the kind of linemates he’d expect to receive but there is some very solid talent in the Jets’ top six so Byfuglien would not likely be hung out to dry.

 

His scoring upside probably wouldn’t change much in the long run whether he plays forward or defense to be perfectly honest. He scored only 34 points in his final season with the Blackhawks splitting time between forward and defense. Assuming quality minutes, talented linemates and a perfecting of his skills Byfuglien still probably maxes out at 70-point upside as a forward, which he technically possesses as a defenseman anyhow. He’d probably just end up scoring in the 50-point range the same as he has done as a defenseman the past three seasons. The move, while interesting, would likely be irrelevant.

 

Ultimately Byfuglien’s weight loss probably doesn’t mean much. You can take it as encouraging if you want but there’s a way to bend it as a negative all the same. That’s why it makes sense to just assume negligible impact.

 

Yandle has no such issues. We know he’s a defenseman of above average talent though mostly average size. This is only worth mentioning because he’s essentially plain vanilla compared to Byfuglien. Sure, Yandle is an effective puck-rusher and puck-mover, with solid skills and great instincts but he’s not as in-your-face as Byfuglien. That means he doesn’t shoot or score goals quite as often. Yandle is a solid goal scorer for a defenseman averaging 11 goals a year over the past four seasons but he can’t match Byfuglien’s output, which means he needs to produce more assists.

 

Relying on assists is what can make a defenseman’s year-to-year production so volatile, which helps to explain why Yandle’s production has yo-yoed over the past four seasons:

Points/Game

2009-10

0.5

2010-11

0.71

2011-12

0.52

2012-13

0.625

 

Of course, most players will see some fluctuation in their year-to-year production but thus far Yandle has seemed fairly reliant on the overall scoring level of his team, which hurts because he skates for the offensively challenged Coyotes. After all, Yandle was his team’s leading scorer last season.

 

He should receive a boost with Mike Ribeiro signing on as a free agent. Ribeiro instantly adds depth and talent to the center position, which is something the Coyotes have lacked for years. His presence will surely make everyone on the team better. If nothing else he should help improve the Coyotes’ punchless power play from 25th in the league last season.

 

There are some questions to be answered about Yandle’s future in Phoenix though and a move to almost any contender would certainly help his prospects. He has been overtaken by Oliver Ekman-Larsson as the Coyotes’ franchise defenseman and while it hasn’t yet cost him much in the way of minutes, it could potentially.

 

It’s more likely however that Ekman-Larsson helps Yandle’s cause, either by making him expendable and thus traded or by simply lightening the load and allowing Yandle to play easier minutes. The two also pair on the power play together where, had they any competent forwards, they make a pretty formidable duo given Ekman-Larsson’s steady play and booming shot contrasting Yandle’s more adventurous and dynamic offensive repertoire.

 

If no trade is made then Yandle will continue to see his 22:15 minutes per game with 3:31 on the power play that he saw last season and will likely do well with it considering his history. If a move – as unlikely as that may be – occurs then his upside could shoot northward simply because of playing for a higher-scoring team. You can’t assume that a trade will take place or that it will be a net positive. So the status quo must remain for Yandle as well.

 

That’s cool. Status quo for two of the best offensive defensemen in the league over the past three years is a great thing. They may have been passed by flashier young players like Kris Letang and PK Subban but these two are still productive. They’ve both given you some reason to be optimistic this off-season and both have a ton of motivation for this upcoming season but none much more than the other so I guess we go by what they’ve done in the past. Byfuglien’s proven himself more productive on a per-game basis. It’s a slim edge but it exists nonetheless so I’m taking Byfuglien. Who do you have?

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