NEWARK, N.J. --
As far as Dustin Byfuglien
is concerned, the switch from forward to defense could come every other game or as early as the very next shift.
But you won't find a big 'V' on the chest of Mr. Versatility for the Chicago Blackhawks
despite the fact his head is on a swivel these days.
Consider the fact that on one shift, the 6-foot-4, 257-pound Byfuglien might find himself alongside forwards Patrick Kane
and Kris Versteeg
. Then, on the next, he could be partnered with defenseman Duncan Keith
It's just a small sampling of Byfuglien's life as a hockey player the past few weeks. One day he could be mentioned among the League's finest power forwards and, the next, one of its toughest defensive defensemen.
The big guy was at it again on Friday against the New Jersey Devils
, when he logged 25:38 of ice time along the blue line and generated a team-high five shots on goalie Martin Brodeur
. He also had two hits in an inspiring effort to help rally the Central Division-leading Hawks to a 2-1 shootout victory.
An injury to defenseman Brian Campbell
(broken clavicle, rib) on March 14 has basically turned Byfuglien into a multi-purpose standout. As such, he's a player coach Joel Quenneville
can rely on for either an offensive spark or a defensive stand.
"We found that he can play on defense and play big minutes and have an impact on both the back end and up front," Quenneville said. "Even the other day, we used him up front one shift and then put him at the back on another. We like that flexibility. We like the size and the presence he creates in front of the net and we like his size in the back end as well. He gives us a lot more options and he's useful in a lot of ways."
Which position does Byfuglien prefer?
"Defense," he told NHL.com. "It's where I'm more comfortable. I've always been in that position; that's where I spent most of my time. Forward is good, but I'd prefer defense because I can see the game a lot better."
And it shows. Byfuglien was certainly in his element against the Devils, throwing his weight around when given the opportunity and making big defensive keeps in the offensive zone. He also assisted on Kris Versteeg
's game-tying goal with just 26 seconds remaining in the third period to send the game into overtime.
The 25-year-old Byfuglien, who is in his fifth NHL season, compares playing offense to that of a sprinter preparing for a 100-yard dash.
"When you're a forward, it's like being in a sprint but, on defense, it's not quite like that," he said. "You have to focus and not chase. You have to relax and not be so high-tempo. You have to wait and pick your spots. It's two totally different positions. I don't focus on one or try to change the way I play too much because I never know if I'm going to end up playing forward (or defense) during the game. I just kind of play the hand I'm dealt and I'm fine with that."
Byfuglien was selected by the Blackhawks in the eighth round of the 2003 draft (No. 245) as a defenseman, but was moved to forward to provide the club with a larger body in the slot. He made a name for himself during the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs, acting as Quenneville's big presence in the middle during the team's run to the Western Conference Finals.
After finishing first among Chicago forwards with 169 hits during the 2008-09 regular season, Byfuglien led the Blackhawks with 78 body checks in the playoffs and was the talk of the town.
"With all the hype and everything, I didn't think I changed too much," Byfuglien said. "Everyone was just going out and playing hockey and having fun. That's something you could definitely feed off and take into the playoffs this season. I have even greater expectations for myself this time around."
But Byfuglien has proven to be much more than a physical presence, as he concluded the season with 31 points in a career-high 77 games last season. He also ranked third on the team with 202 shots.
This season has been much of the same. Byfuglien has 16 goals, 30 points, 205 hits, 46 takeaways and 199 shots while averaging over 16 minutes a game.
He didn't think he'd be immediately pressed into defensive duty when Campbell went down with his injury, but he's glad he was.
"I know we picked up (Nick) Boynton at the deadline and we have Jassen Cullimore
down in the minors (in Rockford) so I really wasn't too focused on it," Byfuglien said. "I didn't think anything of it, going back there, but I'm glad I was given a shot and that things are working out."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com