Atlanta Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay raised a lot of eyebrows when he decided to move newly acquired Dustin Byfuglien from forward back to defense. Three months later, Ramsay's move looks like a stroke of genius.
All Byfuglien has done is lead all defensemen in goals and points as the season reaches the halfway mark, moving him to the top of the heap among candidates for the Norris Trophy as the NHL best defenseman.
Byfuglien's 16 goals in half a season are just one less than he scored all last season while playing forward with Chicago. His 41 points are a career high, and his six game-winning goals lead the NHL, as do his three OT goals. He's one of the biggest reasons (figuratively and literally) that the Thrashers have jumped into the top eight in the Eastern Conference and seem likely to make the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history.
"I watched him handle the puck," Ramsay said of his decision. "I didn't realize he could be that good -- but I saw him handle the puck and shoot it, so I knew of that. But when you're trying to make a forward into a defenseman – even if he has been a defenseman – it's a very difficult process."
One that Byfuglien has mastered with flying colors thus far.
Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Wings -- Lidstrom already has six Norris Trophies -- but at age 40, he's on pace for the best offensive season of his illustrious career. His 39 points were the most he's had through 40 games, and after sub-par (by his standards) season in 2009-10, he's back among the NHL's elite on the blue line. He doesn't have the cannon from the blue line that Byfuglien does, but he did get the first hat trick of his career -- and he's still the one who makes the Red Wings' engine go.
"We think he's the best defenseman in the game and obviously he's an elite talent," coach Mike Babcock said. "But he's an elite person and he's a great leader. He sets the tone for this hockey club structurally, work-ethic wise, how he handles himself as a pro, how you practice and the way you play. You've got to give the guy a lot of credit."
Kris Letang, Penguins -- Any Pittsburgh fans who were nervous after the Penguins let Sergei Gonchar depart as a free agent last summer are breathing a lot easier now that Letang has stepped in and become one of the NHL's elite defensemen. Letang has more than made up for the departure of Gonchar, putting up 36 points and a plus-23 rating, second in the NHL. At 23, he's become a dynamic force on the blue line and is arguably the most important Penguin not named Sidney Crosby.
"I think he’ll be the first one to tell you that he tried to learn as much as he can the past few years from Gonchar,” Crosby told the Penguins' website. "You couldn’t have a better teacher when you look at offensive defensemen. Letang made the most of the opportunity and has played some great hockey for us."