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Byfuglien signs extension with Atlanta

by David Kalan

The Thrashers announced Tuesday that defenseman Dustin Byfuglien had signed a multiyear extension -- no terms were announced, but media reports say the deal is worth $26 million over five years. The deal means Byfuglien, who would have been a restricted free agent this summer, will be a building block for what GM Rick Dudley hopes will be a consistent contender.

"It's a good day for the Thrashers," Dudley said during a conference call Tuesday evening. "Dustin has become one of, if not the most notable face of the franchise. Right now he's been a brilliant player since he's arrived and he's got a personality to go with it, so people gravitate to Byfuglien and it's a very important day for us."

After arriving in a trade from Chicago during the summer, Byfuglien has flourished in his first season with the Thrashers -- who moved him from forward back to defense. In addition to leading the team in scoring, Byfuglien's 17 goals are the most among NHL defenseman. His 43 points are fifth in the League among blueliners.

"It's an honor to get a turn like this to stick with a team and have them know that they have faith in you," Byfuglien said. "A lot of good things are going to happen here and I'm excited to be here and be a part of everything that's going to happen. It's fun to be in the whole organization that builds from the bottom up."

Byfuglien certainly has experience with being a part of one of those. After tallying just 34 points last season as a forward for the Blackhawks, he burst onto the scene with 11 goals and 5 assists during Chicago's run to its first Stanley Cup title in 49 years -- a title that came on the backs of mostly homegrown talents like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, as well as Byfuglien.

Originally drafted by the Blackhawks in the eighth round (No. 245) in the 2003 Entry Draft, Byfuglien's impressive postseason performance included five game-winners and six points in the Stanley Cup Final against Philadelphia, thrusting the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder into the running for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.

With Chicago facing pressure to shed players to get under the salary cap, Byfuglien was shipped to Atlanta during the summer along with Brent Sopel, Ben Eager and Akim Aliu in exchange for Marty Reasoner, Joey Crabb, Jeremy Morin and Atlanta's first- and second-round picks in the 2010 Entry Draft.

The Thrashers decided to shift Byfuglien back the blue line in what many saw as a curious move given his postseason performance. But the decision has paid big dividends to the team and, now, for Byfuglien as well.

"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."

Atlanta has a past littered with great players leaving for new cities -- notable former Thrashers include Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa and Dany Heatley -- but with the team in contention for the second playoff berth in franchise history this season, there is hope Byfuglien's extension could be a signal that Atlanta is now a destination for both Thrashers draft picks and free agents.

The Thrashers are two points behind Carolina for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs with 24 games left to play.

Dudley said little Tuesday to downplay the impact the front office believed signing Byfuglien could have on the franchise's long-term future.

"I think anybody would look at our situation and look at [Byfuglien and defenseman Tobias Enstrom] and say this is a pretty attractive place," Dudley said. "Especially if you're a player that had aspirations of playing on the power play, it's a pretty nice duo to be on a power play with."

Byfuglien, too, was excited about the prospect of spending several years in Atlanta, believing the organization is moving in the right direction as it aims to compete for the postseason every season.

Atlanta's mild winter weather didn't hurt either.

"Around Christmastime, when I realized there was no snow on the ground," said Byfuglien, a native of Roseau, Minn., "it was nice weather and I definitely thought I could be here."

But weather alone was not the determining factor. Byfuglien noted that with Dudley and coach Craig Ramsay in place, Atlanta has the stability to develop into a consistently competitive franchise.

"I definitely looked at that and looked at who was going to be around," Byfuglien said. "If we get our feet wet in the playoffs this year it's a huge opportunity."

While Byfuglien's impressive start to the season put him in the Norris Trophy discussion at the campaign's midway point, his numbers have tailed off somewhat in recent weeks. Byfuglien's goal Feb. 7 against Toronto snapped a 13-game scoreless stretch.

Those numbers would seem likely to concern any franchise as it prepares to commit $26 million to a 25-year-old defenseman, but Dudley believed his recent struggles to be a mere blip on the radar.

"Buff's a young guy and a lot of pressure has been put on his shoulders," Dudley said. "I'm not too worried about the goals and the assists. I think he's going to be just fine. I think a lot's been asked. He's been leading our team in scoring and he's a defenseman. To look down on the scoresheet and know you're probably going to have to carry the load offensively a little bit is a little difficult.

"The fact is he's played pretty well all year."
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