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Stanley Cup Final

Byfuglien shines on Thrashers' blue line

Thursday, 02.24.2011 / 12:01 PM / Hockey's Finest Presented by Army

NHL.com

After the performance he put on last spring during the Chicago Blackhawks' run to their first Stanley Cup in 49 years, when he seemingly emerged as one of the top young power forwards in the NHL, one would expect Dustin Byfuglien would have little interest in ever switching back to defense again.

That was hardly the case.

When he was acquired by the Atlanta Thrashers in a major trade over the summer, GM Rick Dudley immediately approached Byfuglien about returning to man the blue line. Not only didn't he meet any resistance, it turned out Byfuglien was a fan of the idea.

"When I got traded, right away we talked about going back to defense," the 25-year-old Byfuglien said. "I think it's just the confidence and just the ability to be able to realize you can take your time, shoot the puck and just get it on net."

Byfuglien then proceeded to go out and make Dudley and first-year Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay look like geniuses by making a seamless transition back to his original position, and not only didn't his offensive production take a hit, it continued to reach the next level.

Through the first 61 games of the season Byfuglien had 18 goals, one of the career high he set back in 2007-08, and his 45 points -- tied with fellow d-man Tobias Enstrom for the team lead -- were already nine more than he achieved in a single season.

Byfuglien also has more opportunity to make an impact as he regularly plays more than 25 minutes a night and reached a whopping 29:07 in a recent game in Toronto. 

"It feels good to prove people wrong, I can play 'D' and I can play forward," Byfuglien said.

While some criticized the Thrashers for the move, Dudley felt from the beginning that the 6-foot-5, 265-pound behemoth dubbed "Big Buff" -- who used his size to perfection during the playoffs in screening goalies and making himself an annoying and virtually unmovable netfront presence -- had the tools to be an even bigger force on the back end.

"It was a decision that I made a long time ago when I was with Chicago," said Dudley, who was with the Hawks when Byfuglien was drafted. "Dustin's abilities on defense were -- his abilities as a forward are very high, and that's obvious with the Stanley Cup run -- but I always felt that his ability to process the game on the blue line was a very important part of it."

Ramsay was also on board, even though his familiarity with Byfuglien came mostly from seeing the feats he accomplished as a forward during the Blackhawks' championship run.

"Certainly, you watch some of that enthusiasm and you hope it transcends," Ramsay said. "I watched him handle the puck. 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.

"To me, he's got hands. He's got a big body that battles and his enthusiasm makes up for lots -- and playing with (Enstrom) probably doesn't hurt him at all either because Toby's got a great stick, tremendous composure, and together they're a great pair because it's vital."

"There's something about playoffs that just makes you get that extra spark. You're ready to go every night."
-- Dustin Byfuglien

To say Byfuglien's first five months with the Thrashers have been a success would be one of the bigger understatements of the 2010-11 season. He recently signed a contract extension reportedly worth $26 million over five years just weeks after playing in the 2011 NHL All-Star Game presented by Discover and scoring a goal as a member of the victorious Team Lidstrom.

"It's not every day you get to put on jerseys with guys like (Nicklas) Lidstrom and (Zdeno) Chara and (Martin) St. Louis, guys you looked up to," Byfuglien said. "Now we're putting our jersey on together and we're playing together, and we're sitting on the bench laughing."

One area where he came away slightly disappointed was in the XM NHL Hardest Shot competition, where he failed to challenge Chara's record-setting mark of 105.9 miles per hour. He said it was only his second time shooting against a radar gun.

"I kind of figured I'd be around 102, 103, I knew I'd be in that range," Byfuglien said. "Now I know I've got to go make one more All-Star Game because I know I can beat that."

He was laughing, but Byfuglien should be a confident guy after lifting the Stanley Cup at such a young age and being an integral part of his team winning it. After scoring 17 goals in 82 regular-season games, he added 11 more in 22 playoff contests.

"There's something about playoffs that just makes you get that extra spark. You're ready to go every night," Byfuglien said.

Five of his goals were game-winners, including one in overtime during Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals and another decisive goal in Game 4 as Chicago swept San Jose.

"The biggest goal of my career would probably be the playoff game -- Game 4, San Jose, the go-ahead goal to close the series and sweep them," Byfuglien said.

Byfuglien was quiet for the first four games of the Stanley Cup Final, posting just a lone assist, but as soon as it appeared maybe Philadelphia had figured out how to shut down the young, physical player, he erupted for 2 goals and 2 assists in a pivotal Game 5 victory. Byfuglien also opened the scoring in the overtime win that ended Chicago's lengthy championship drought.

"You dream about it as a kid and you think about it and then you're like, 'I'll make it to the NHL, it'd be lovely to win that Cup someday.' Then all of a sudden it's Game 6," he said, remembering the postseason finale and the aftermath after Patrick Kane scored to win it.

"Everyone's getting around to hoist this thing. A lot of memories run through you then, what got you there. That thing definitely didn't feel as heavy as it was, that's for sure."

After a fast start, the Thrashers have faded to 10th in the Eastern Conference but are only a handful of points out of the playoff picture. Byfuglien would love to help Atlanta clinch a playoff berth for only the second time in franchise history and get a chance to add to his growing legend -- though he'll only take so much credit for the clutch goals he's scored in the past.

"I've been in a lot of good, right spots at the right time," he said. "It feels good to get those goals, don't get me wrong. Sometimes maybe I shouldn't have been there, but it happened to be."
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