“Let me ask you this,” says Billy. “If Jeremy Brown looked as good in a uniform as Majewski [a Greek Kouros who played outfield for the University of Texas], where on this board would you put him?”
The scouts pretend to consider this. Nobody says anything so Pitter says it for them: “He’d be in that first column.” A first-round pick.
“You guys really are trying to sell jeans, aren’t you, says Billy.
One of the more entertaining things about this summer is the prevalence of candid photographs of Dustin Byfuglien. Like Patrick Kane two summers ago, who was caught in various places around Chicago celebrating his Stanley Cup, Byfuglien has been photographed in various places around North America displaying his not-exactly-hockey-body.
The passage above is, of course, from Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. One of the more entertaining sections of the book is when Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta rise to the defence of overweight amateur baseball players in an attempt to find undervalued players. For them, it was looks.
In reality, we need not worry about Dustin Byfuglien’s weight. We’ve seen the pictures. Above is the much-circulated picture from yesterday of Byfuglien at teammate David Bolland’s wedding. The next two photographs, display Byfuglien entering a Minneapolis courtroom last month, and another of him fishing in the Fraser River for sturgeon with Andrew Ladd:
No, we don’t need to worry about Byfuglien’s weight, just his playing ability. Byfuglien was a good player on a good team last season, a 51.5% Fenwick Close Winnipeg Jets squad that was pretty well-coached, and may have missed the playoffs because of their goaltending.
Byfuglien was a big part of that. When I’d watch Jets games and peek at the data afterwards, I’d note that Byfuglien controlled the offence moreso than any other defenceman in the NHL. An incredible specimen, some nights he’d have more shot attempts than any Jet. It’s rare to see a defenceman that comfortable in the offensive zone.
He made defensive lapses, sure, but there weren’t very many defencemen better than him last year on the opponents’ side of centre. His pinches were intelligent and effective, he’d read plays well to step around opposing defenders and find the open man.
In short, it hardly mattered how heavy Byfuglien was because he was a very effective player. He led the team in time on ice by a margin wider than his waistline and played convincingly tough minutes, toping the Jets’ in Corsi Rel QoC indicators and though Claude Noel paid attention to his forwards through offensive zone starts, he didn’t do the same for his defence, and Byfuglien got a smaller offensive zone start boost (53.4%) compared to other offensive defencemen such as Alex Edler, Nik Lidstrom or Erik Karlsson who were in the high-50s.
Byfuglien and his usual defensive partner, Tobias Enstrom, had the best Corsi rates on the Jets’ team, and the only ones who were in positive territory. Every 60 minutes, the Jets directed 8.58 more shots on the net at even strength with Byfuglien on the ice.
Byfuglien makes up one half of a particularly effective defence pairing. Even if he is much heavier than his partner, it shouldn’t make too much of a difference if he can continue to control the play like he has, but hockey has a way of rewarding fitness.
In the first half of the season with the score tied, when Byfuglien was on the ice, the Jets took 138 shots and allowed 113, a 55%. Puck-possession numbers weren’t quite as strong, (51.9% Fenwick and 53.1% Corsi) but the TV camera was primarily turned towards the opposing end with Byfuglien on the ice. In the second half of the season, with Byfuglien on the ice the Jets got out-shot 180-158 and had an overall Fenwick Tied score of below 50 (49.4%, along with 50.7% Corsi):
He wasn’t playing any less ice time, almost more of it. While I don’t think Winnipeg’s drop in overall play is indicative of Byfuglien’s cardio (the Thrashers didn’t see a similar second-half drop in the 2011 season) he’s a player under contract until 2016 and has a salary cap hit of over $5M. You don’t want anything, if you’re the Jets, to considerably affect his skating or his health. If you make that kind of money playing hockey, you owe it to the organization to stay in a reasonable amount of shape. How long are those knees going to be able to play 20+ minutes a night? With the calibre of defenceman he is, it makes a very discernible difference in the scheme of things if he plays 20 minutes over 17.
It’s something that doesn’t really matter to the Jets organization. They re-signed Kyle Wellwood to a value contract earlier in the summer because Wellwood is a player who can’t play 15 effective minutes a game and is relegated to third-line duty. If Byfuglien can play 20, even as his weight swells up obviously higher than its listed 265, well, that’s all well and good, but I wouldn’t be so lenient if he sees a drop in performance or a reduction in ice-time.
We’re not selling jeans here, but if I’m working with the Jets, I want to make sure those skating knees are still functional by the end of Byfuglien’s contract. Somebody get Gary Roberts on the phone.