Byfuglien project paying off in Atlanta

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

Does Dustin Byfuglien(notes) think he could win the Stanley Cup as a forward one season, then win the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman the next? Ask, and he gives a long, low chuckle.

“No, not really,” he said. “It’s nice that guys keep thinking like that.”

Byfuglien has heard that question increasingly over the past couple of weeks, and he’s wise to brush it off.

“It’s kind of funny,” he said. “I never put myself in the category of guys that have won that. I’m just here to have fun and do my job and do it the best I can.”

But it’s no joke what Byfuglien has done since moving back to defense with the Atlanta Thrashers, and the fact that anyone would even mention his name in the Norris discussion only illustrates how remarkable his start has been.

Byfuglien was a playoff hero as a power forward/winger for the Chicago Blackhawks last season. He scored 11 goals – including five game-winners – and added five assists in a 22-game Cup run.

Since being sent to Atlanta as part of the Blackhawks’ offseason salary-cap purge, he has moved back to his natural position and more than mirrored his playoff performance offensively. He has scored 10 goals – including five game-winners – and added 17 assists in 25 games.

Those 10 goals and his 27 points lead all NHL defenseman. Those five game-winners lead everyone.

Byfuglien has scored five goals and added six assists during the Thrashers’ six-game winning streak, setting up Thursday night’s clash with the Pittsburgh Penguins, winners of seven straight.

“For me, it’s not a fluke, and it’s not all that surprising that he’s very good,” Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley said. “Now, would I have guessed that he’d lead the NHL in scoring by a defenseman? Probably not. But did I think he had the skill set and the size and the demeanor and the passion to be a top-notch defenseman in the National Hockey League? Yes.”

Dudley said he believed that from the first day he saw Byfuglien in the minor leagues. Dudley spent 2004-09 in the Blackhawks’ front office. He watched Byfuglien develop as a defenseman with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals.

When former ’Hawks coach Denis Savard moved Byfuglien to forward, Dudley understood, even though he maintained within the organization that Byfuglien would be better on the blue line. Savard had small forwards. He needed size up front. Byfuglien is listed at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds.

When coach Joel Quenneville used Byfuglien at forward, Dudley understood that, too. The ’Hawks were stacked on defense, with Duncan Keith(notes) – last year’s Norris winner – plus Brent Seabrook(notes), Brian Campbell(notes) and Niklas Hjalmarsson(notes).

“They didn’t need Dustin,” Dudley said. “It’s easy to understand how they wouldn’t say, ‘Well, let’s put him back on the blue line.’ ”

But when the ’Hawks made Byfuglien available after winning the Cup, Dudley pounced. He acquired him in a larger deal June 24 at virtually the same time he hired coach Craig Ramsay, whom he considers one of the best teachers of defensemen in the game. He figured Byfuglien would solidify the top four to start, then grow from there.

“I always thought he had the talent,” Dudley said. “If you break it into its simplest forms, he’s 260 pounds. He can skate very well. He’s got a booming shot, which is a real attribute at the point. He’s got very soft hands. And he processes the game from the blue line very, very well, and I think that last part is probably what was overlooked earlier.”

It helped that Byfuglien made the transition with confidence and comfort. He was coming off a Stanley Cup championship, the highlight of his career. He was asked to make the move, not told to make it. And it happened before the season.

“They asked me if I wanted to,” Byfuglien said. “We talked about it, and we sat on it for a while. At the end, it was kind of my decision, and I said kind of, ‘OK.’ … I think I was pretty comfortable coming into training camp and starting fresh with everyone else for a new year. It wasn’t like coming in halfway through the season, playing forward and then all of a sudden playing defense.”

Byfuglien, 25, is getting more ice time, averaging 21:36, after never averaging more than 17:02 in a full NHL season. He’s playing in a system that encourages defensemen to contribute offensively, and he’s playing the point on the power play, firing pucks at the net instead of planting his big body in front of it.

In short, he’s showing the skills Dudley thought he had.

“When he’s back there, he’s very comfortable making a play,” Dudley said. “Some people just want to move the puck quickly, as quickly as they possibly can. Dustin identifies much quicker than a lot of people. He identifies and makes the play much easier because he does have the soft hands and the accuracy and the vision and all of those things that go into making a play.”

Byfuglien’s biggest challenge now is taking his defensive game to an elite level. But Dudley said he is improving “almost on a game-by-game basis,” learning when to be aggressive offensively and when not to.

“There are times leading 3-2 late in the third period where you might not want a defenseman crashing the net,” Dudley said. “I would suppose that’s about the only thing. Most young defensemen – and he’s a young defenseman – have to learn how to manage the score and the puck. I would say if he needs to work on anything, that would be it.”

So can Byfuglien win the Norris?

Dudley responded with a quick, “I don’t want to speculate on that.” But then, just as quickly, he raved about how much Byfuglien has meant to the Thrashers and how much he has accomplished so far.

“He demands some things of himself, and he demands some things of his teammates,” Dudley said. “He’s not afraid to be somewhat vocal about it. I think he’s matured as a player and as a person, and I’m proud of him for that.

“When you mix that leadership component with the fact that he leads the league in scoring by a defenseman, he leads the league in goals by a defenseman, leads the entire league in game-winning goals, I mean, I don’t know what more the guy can do.”

Just one thing.

“Hopefully,” Byfuglien said, “we can just keep it going.”

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