If his strong play at left wing keeps up, the Chicago Blackhawks
are going to have a hard time moving forward Dustin Byfuglien
back to defense.
Then again, before he undertook great strides in his conditioning this season, it was hard to move Byfuglien, 22, anywhere.
In recent seasons, he's reduced his weight from 275 pounds into the 245-pound range and he still has a way to go.
Byfuglien (pronounced "Bufflin") has 13 goals and 14 assists in 51 games with the Blackhawks this season. At the start of the season, he was seen as one of several promising young defensemen in the Chicago lineup, along with Brent Seabrook, 22; Duncan Keith, 24; Cam Barker, 21; Jordan Hendry, 22; and James Wisniewski, 22. And, he didn't rank too highly in that group, off his previous stints with the Blackhawks in 2006, when he played 25 games, and last season when he appeared in only nine NHL games.
The Blackhawks were well aware Byfuglien was behind the development curve when they used their eighth-round pick, 245th overall, in the 2003 Entry Draft to bring him into the fold.
Byfuglien grew up in the Minnesota hockey hotbed town of Roseau, but unlike his uncles and Roseau's famous Broten brothers, he didn't play for his high-school team and his youth-hockey experiences were intermittent. There were a variety of reasons, ranging from family finances to his inability to focus on schoolwork. The latter rendered him ineligible for the Rams' interscholastic sports.
But Byfuglien was a rink rat who hung out daily at Memorial Arena, playing hockey or just skating whenever he could. His family sent him to Chicago for a year to play for the Chicago Mission, the top midget team in Illinois. That led to an offer to play Canadian juniors, first with the Brandon Wheat Kings and later with the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League.
Byfuglien played most of the past two seasons with the Blackhawks' AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, and eight games at the start of this season with Chicago's AHL new affiliate in Rockford, Ill. He was brought up Nov. 3 against the St. Louis Blues and scored.
He started to attract more attention earlier this season with his hard shots from the point on power plays. Byfuglien has a short backswing, yet generates incredible power. That's no surprise. He won the hardest shot competition at the AHL All-Star Game last year, 98.7 mph.
Despite having a hard slap shot, Byfuglien often opts for wrist shots, which gives the opposition less time to react defensively. The wrister was hot on Nov. 30 at the United Center against the Phoenix Coyotes. The Blackhawks were up 2-0 early in the first period when Byfuglien scored on a wrist shot from the right point. Five minutes later, he scored on a wrist shot from the left point and 16 seconds later gained his first NHL hat trick with another wrister from the left side, the last two goals assisted by Jonathan Toews.
But then he had only two goals in December and one in January. Injuries began mounting among the Blackhawks' forwards and their minor-league replacements weren't ready to help the club yet. Byfuglien, a right-hand shot, started getting shifts at left wing.
Recently, coach Denis Savard has been using Bufuglien on a power-play unit with rookies Jonathan Toews and Pat Kane. Byfuglien has the role of screening the goalie and fighting for rebounds, where he's had some success. He's also played recently with Rene Bourque and Robert Lang.
"I always played defense while I was growing up," he said. "I just have to jump up and play forward. It's a different transition. It's kind of fun because I get to play with 23 different guys by playing both defense and forward. We have talented guys up front, too.”
Byfuglien gave a good exhibition of strength and skills Feb. 13 against the Blue Jackets in Columbus. Linemate Rene Bourque sent a leading pass to Byfuglien into center ice. Columbus defenseman Kris Russell intercepted, but Byfuglien crashed right through at the blue line, avoided goalie Fredric Norrena's poke check with a nice deke and scored into the open net. On Byfuglien's second goal, Pascal Leclaire was in the Blue Jackets’ net when he stopped a shot from Brent Sopel at the right point. Byfuglien outmuscled Leclaire and Columbus defenseman Jan Hejda and pushed the puck into the net.
Byfuglien has found the move to forward to be challenging but exciting.
"I've played both wings, but I like playing the off side,” he said. “I can catch a pass on my forehand and shoot. Coming down the off side, the stick is always to the net side. Pat Kane likes to play on his off side too, so that's why I'm at left wing. He's a great passer who can thread the needle. It's amazing how his passes are always right on your tape. It's right there, I mean it. He's a great player and very smooth. I just have to find the open areas and he gives me opportunities in the offensive zone."
Blackhawks General Manager Dale Tallon said the Byfuglien experiment is open-ended, that he's willing to see it through for a while to see what becomes of it.
"There's a great debate among our coaches and staff," Tallon said. "Right now, we want to maximize his ice time. Some nights he'll play forward and some nights, defense. Toews is back and Jason Williams is coming back so that might affect how we use Dustin. It's a nice luxury to have."
Tallon pointed to the Blackhawks' victory Feb. 7 over the Flames in Calgary as an example how Byfuglien can help the team. He screened goalie Miikka Kiprusoff on Duncan Keith's opening goal. On a play with 6:24 left in the second period, Byfuglien stole a puck Kiprusoff was trying to cover, did a 360 at the corner of the net and fired a shot that just missed the outside post. Finally, he knocked the very rugged Robyn Regehr off his feet with a hard check.
Dustin has great skills and hockey sense and vision. He can improvise and he's hard to knock off his feet. The spin move against Calgary was a case of improvising and doing something exciting to see. - Dale Tallon
"Dustin has great skills and hockey sense and vision," Tallon said. "He can improvise and he's hard to knock off his feet. The spin move against Calgary was a case of improvising and doing something exciting to see."
"We think he shows some inexperience at defense but he's not behind the curve because I believe you need 300 NHL games to be proficient at defense, no matter what your background. We have five young defensemen that all need to work on the structure of their games and work on defensive positioning."
Byfuglien said he is learning a lot this season and has gotten a lot of support from his teammates and the coaching staff. His biggest challenge this late in the season is the same one he had at the start of the year.
"Everyone is telling me to get into better shape, that's the biggest issue with me," Byfuglien said. "It kind of comes off slowly for me. As big as I am, I'm in pretty good shape, but I have to keep working."
Rockford coach Mike Haviland has tracked Byfuglien's progress.
"Dustin has come a long way but conditioning remains the biggest thing," Haviland said. "He's going to have to keep working at it, but he's done a tremendous job so far.
"He was the most skilled guy we had with his natural ability. He's got a cannon of a shot and he doesn't take a lot of time with it. He's got a quick release. I know Dale wants to see more to get a better idea of his offensive ability. He has unbelievable skills for a man that big.
"If I'm asked about his 'top end,' his ultimate potential, I know we haven't seen it yet," Haviland said."