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Buff's Whopper Of A Season A Reason for Optimism

by Staff Writer / Winnipeg Jets

Dustin Byfuglien is good at spinning a yarn.

You get that way when you like to fish as much as he does.

Byfuglien, who more than once during clear-out day interviews made reference to his boat when asked about summer plans, has mastered the art of "the one that got away" stories and big catches.

He was the Thrashers' big 2010 off-season haul and proved so important to the team's plans that they signed him to a reported five-year, $25 million contract extension on Feb. 15, so as to avoid him being a "one that got away" from Atlanta.

With a new contract signed early in 2011, Thrashers fans can look forwrd to seeing Buff's smiling face for a long time.

Byfuglien's 2010-11 season makes for a great story. One so special and, in some ways, so improbable that it might have ranked as a great fish story to someone fishing on the docks who may be unaware of how Byfuglien makes his living.

"It was a good year, a lot of ups and downs. Personally, I had a good year," said Byfuglien, whose arrival in Atlanta was a lot less heralded than his departure for the off-season. "I figured out that I can be a leader around here and am gonna be around here for a while. With what we have and what we have coming up, we've got a lot of potential. The year ended on not the best note but we can take a lot of good things out of the season."

Byfuglien certainly has a lot of good things.

The 6-5, 265-pound native of Minneapolis, who had played the majority of his five-year career on right wing, not only changed conferences and teams — not all that unusual — but also changed positions, moving from right wing to defense. He not only was arguably the team's most consistent offensive performer on the blueline, but he also made the Eastern Conference All-Star Team and set numerous team-season-records, including most goals by a defenseman (20), most points by a defenseman (53), and most shots by a Thrasher in a single season (347).

The fun's in the playoffs. That's when it all means something. It's something that I know once guys get a taste of it around here they're not going to want to ever be out of it. It's something that feels good and is fun to be in. - Dustin Byfuglien

Acquired in Atlanta's blockbuster seven-player trade with Chicago last June 24, which also netted Ben Eager, Brent Sopel and minor leaguer Akim Aliu, Byfuglien picked up with Atlanta where he left off with Chicago during the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when he scored 16 points (11G, 5A) helping the Blackhawks win the Cup for the first time in 49 years.

During the 2010-11 season, his 20 goals led all NHL defensemen, while his 53 points were fourth-best.

On Atlanta, only Andrew Ladd had more goals (29) and points (59), only defensive partner Toby Enstrom had more assists (41 to 33), and only Ron Hainsey, Johnny Oduya and Chris Thorburn played more games than Byfuglien's 81.

He also represented Atlanta well at All-Star Weekend in Raleigh, where he finished third in the hardest shot competition, with a blast timed at 102.4 MPH and scored a goal on his only shot during the game for victorious Team Lidstrom.

"[The 2010-11 season] went way better than I expected," he said. "I wasn't expected to do this well but I had high expectations for myself. I didn't think I'd get as high as I did but I was very satisfied with where I was. I definitely had to play at my best. I was out there against top lines and trying to do the offense and the defense, you really had to focus on the defense pretty good to bring offense."

His role as a team leader also caught him a little by surprise.

"It wasn't something that, coming over here, I'd think I'd have to be that big of a role," he said. "To get everything thrown at you and to be able to jump in and run with it, it was fun. I enjoyed it. It was definitely a time that I needed to step up."

Byfuglien's stepping up made him an instant fan favorite at Blueland, and he was rewarded with the extension. He's looking forward to more and better days in Atlanta.

“I'm honored to be able to get a contract like that and to be able to have a team lock me up for that long,” he said. “With them giving me a leadership role this year and really taking on a lot of things that I was iffy on coming into this season. It's going to be a little different. I had a lot of fun. I went out there and played and I got to meet with a lot of good guys and a lot of young kids that are going to be fun to be playing with in the future.

"[Atlanta is] a great city," he said, adding that he hoped the team would make a similar long-term commitment to Ladd. "There are a lot of good things around here that can come from Atlanta than being in other places. You definitely have seen good nights and what we have the potential to be. I see a lot of upside. I'm just excited for what it can be here."

Byfuglien sees similarities in these Thrashers and the Blackhawks teams that grew together and eventually brought Chicago a Stanley Cup. For right now, he'll be happy if next year in mid-April they are preparing for the next opponent instead of the next training camp.

Click here for a Dustin Byfuglien photo gallery.

"We don't want to be [clearing out] next year," he said. "We want to hopefully be having this meeting in June. We'll all be going home with a smile on our faces.

"The fun actually should be starting right now," he added. "The fun's in the playoffs. That's when it all means something. It's something that I know once guys get a taste of it around here they're not going to want to ever be out of it. It's something that feels good and is fun to be in."

This summer, when he's not getting some sun, sitting on his boat, and, of course, working out to get ready for next season, he'll be exploring ways to work on building the Byfuglien brand, preferably in a way that won't have to take him off the boat so often....

"I'll probably try to get my own fishing show," he said and laughed. "You never know. It's something to try."


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