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Big Buff makes big impact on Thrashers' blue line

by John Manasso /
DULUTH, Ga. -- Twenty-five games into the NHL season, the marriage of Dustin Byfuglien on defense in the first season of Craig Ramsay's tenure as coach of the Atlanta Thrashers looks like a match made in heaven.

After Byfuglien arrived during the offseason from Stanley Cup champion Chicago via trade, Atlanta elected to move the 6-foot-3, 265-pounder, fresh off a dynamic performance in the playoffs as a forward, back to defense. General manager Rick Dudley made the trade and hired Ramsay within a whirlwind 24-hour period in June.

Maybe somewhere in the hockey savant mind of Dudley, the vision of Byfuglien paired with Ramsay's system, which encourages defensemen to join the rush, such a potent mix had first bloomed. Byfuglien entered December leading all defenseman with 10 goals and 27 points. He's ninth among all skaters in points, and his 5 game-winning goals is the best in the League. He ended November with a six-game scoring streak.

But Ramsay, who, while an assistant coach in Boston the previous three seasons, had hardly seen Byfuglien play any defense, admitted on Tuesday that he had no idea the combination would succeed so smashingly.

"Certainly, you watch some of that enthusiasm and you hope it transcends," he said of watching Byfuglien play forward during the playoffs. "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 (Tobias 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."

In Chicago, coach Joel Quenneville moved Byfuglien to defense only by necessity. With the likes of Duncan Keith, last season's Norris Trophy winner, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell, Niklas Hjalmarsson and veteran Brent Sopel (now a Thrasher) on the blue line, Byfuglien was a third-pair defenseman at best. But when the Hawks had some injuries, Byfuglien moved to forward and it worked.

Thrashers associate coach John Torchetti, who was an assistant on Chicago's staff the last few seasons, said Byfuglien bought into the move back to the blue line.

"He knew he was being impactful at forward," Torchetti said. "He bought in, though. That's the whole key. You've got to buy in. If a player doesn't like a position, you'll know."

Torchetti ran the power play in Chicago and he experimented with Byfuglien on the right point, but Patrick Sharp was so successful back there and Byfuglien was so effective in front of the net that the staff decided to leave well enough alone.

Fast forward to Atlanta. Torchetti, again running the power play, got to play Byfuglien at the right point. The rest has been history. Enstrom and Byfuglien are tied for first in power-play points by a defenseman with 13. Not coincidentally, the Thrashers' power-play unit ranks fourth in the League at 23.8 percent.

"You've got to be comfortable sitting off the weak-side post and not worry about getting odd-man rushes," Torchetti said. "You've got to be worried about scoring goals for the team. I don't think you really have to worry about Buff getting up ice too much. You have to worry about Buff getting back. Those are things you can teach. So it's easier to teach him to play defense than it is to play offense. … It made the adjustment faster better for us."

For Byfuglien, moving to defense and being on Atlanta's top pair has meant more minutes and being put into more key situations. His 5 game-winning goals are two short of the single-season NHL mark for defensemen. His 2 overtime goals also leads all blueliners.

"We just played a totally different system," Byfuglien said of Chicago. "I wasn't going to be the guy, the 'go-to' guy back there. Just coming in being the fifth, sixth guy back there. It's hard to jump ahead of Duncan Keith and Seabrook and those guys. I went back there and played good, played fairly well, but just a different system so it didn't play into the hands."

Ramsay has praised Byfuglien's desire to accept his role in the big moment and to want to make a difference, as he has. That and because of his professionalism in accepting the move and thriving in his new situation, why Big Buff is one of Atlanta's two alternate captains, along with Enstrom.

Byfuglien is off to a hot start offensively, and Torchetti said Byfuglien's next goal is to sustain it. To hit the next level, Torchetti said, Byfuglien must post a plus-25 rating like, in Torchetti's words, "the big boys" -- players like Keith and Lidstrom. Byfuglien is currently plus-5, tied for the best mark on the team.

But those are long-term goals. For now, Byfuglien is reveling in his success, saying it's rewarding. Like Ramsay, Byfuglien could not have envisioned that events would play out as fortuitously as they have.

"You don't really know what you're getting yourself into when you're coming somewhere," he said. "It's played into my hands and it's been, well you know, it's all just good right now."
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