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Despite position change, Byfuglien finds stardom

by John Manasso
ATLANTA Kris Versteeg was recalling a game about four years ago when he and Dustin Byfuglien were toiling for the Norfolk Admirals, the Chicago Blackhawks' affiliate in the American Hockey League at the time.

Byfuglien was bouncing up and down between Blackhawks and the Admirals and with the way the schedule worked out, Byfuglien ended up playing his fifth game in five days back with Norfolk.

"Still he had three breakaways shorthanded as a (defenseman)," said Versteeg, now in Toronto. "It was a display that I don't know if I will ever see again in pro hockey.

"But you know he has it. He has what it takes to do it."

The rest of the NHL is learning that same lesson this season as Byfuglien has moved from forward, the position that made him famous during the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, back to defense, the position he has traditionally played.

The transformation began with a June trade -- just days after Byfuglien celebrated winning the Stanley Cup -- in which Chicago, in a move to get under the League's salary cap, sent Byfuglien and two other players to Atlanta.

There, new coach Craig Ramsay defied logic and moved Byfuglien from the power forward role he was making his own back to the blue line. It is a gamble that has paid huge dividends.

With the season now at its midpoint and 2011 NHL All-Star Game presented by Discover selections set for Tuesday, Byfuglien has been one of the League's brightest surprises. He should be a lock to play in his first All-Star Game, as he leads the NHL in goals (16) and points (41) by a defenseman and is tied for the overall League lead in game-winning goals with 6.

Such production has put Byfuglien in the discussion to win the Norris

Trophy. Several pundits have made him the Norris choice at the halfway point -- ahead of traditional winner Nick Lidstrom -- and Nashville coach Barry Trotz -- who knows a thing or two about high-end defensemen -- has said Byfuglien deserves consideration.

There's no doubt that Byfuglien brings the offensive credentials to win the Norris, but what about the defensive ones? Through 44 games, he owns a plus-8 rating, which ties him for No. 35 in the League.

"Defensively, he's good enough. Yeah, no question," said Denis Potvin, the Hall of Famer and three-time Norris winner, who now serves as an analyst for Rogers Sportsnet's Ottawa Senators broadcasts. Potvin also added that Byfuglien and all of the Thrashers have benefitted from the coaching of Ramsay.
Byfuglien brushes aside all of this talk with his typical nonchalance. Not much fazes Big Buff, it seems.
Byfuglien doesn't think about the All-Star Game regularly, but it has been hard to avoid the hype.
"It, obviously, would be nice to make it and go," Byfuglien said. "It's always exciting, but I just look at it as another thing. I don't plan on making it."

And, if by some fluke, Byfuglien is not among the 42 players named to the 2011 All-Star Game rosters, he has other plans.

"Hopefully, I can get some vacation time," he said. "Go somewhere nice."

Who knows, maybe he will end in Cabo San Lucas. Versteeg promised last season that if Chicago won the Cup -- which it did in six games against the Philadelphia Flyers -- he would take Byfuglien and his girlfriend to the vacation hotspot. He has yet to deliver on that promise.

Even with all of Byfuglien’s success on defense this season, it’s hard to find anyone willing to criticize Chicago’s decision to play him at forward.

After all, the Blackhawks boasted a lineup with the eventual Norris Trophy winner and another Canadian Olympian on the blue line. Plus, Byfuglien scored 11 playoff goals, including 5 game-winners.

"The way Joel Quenneville saw him, he saw him as a better contributor as a winger and Joel wasn't wrong," Potvin said.

Rick Dudley, now the GM of the Thrashers, spent five years in Chicago's front office. Throughout his tenure with the hawks, he always believed Byfuglien was more valuable as a defenseman.

"It was in my head," Dudley said. "In fact, I said it -- you can ask anybody who worked in Chicago, if they’ll tell the truth -- he's a better defenseman than forward. They moved him to forward and, to be honest with you, they put him in a spot – partly because they had a good defense anyway -- because he did pretty well with it and they were satisfied with that.

"I never was. I thought he was much more than that."

But the marriage of Byfuglien with Ramsay's system – which encourages risk-taking by defensemen in joining the rush – seems to have produced results better than anyone imagined.

"When I would imagine Buff being taught by Craig, it was kind of a natural, to be honest, and that certainly came into play," Ramsay said.

Dudly makes two main points to illustrate why he thought Byfuglien's return to defense would work: the player's size-speed-skill ratio, which he said is off the charts, and his ability to process the game.

Detroit assistant coach Brad McCrimmon, who played 18 seasons as an NHL defenseman and is considered one of the top coaches of the position, said that ability to process the game is the biggest change a player must make to go from playing forward to defense.

"Just getting your reads -- stuff defensively -- and positional play, defensive zone and not getting beat off the walls," McCrimmon said.

"You can ask anybody who worked in Chicago, if they’ll tell the truth -- he's a better defenseman than forward. They moved him to forward and, to be honest with you, they put him in a spot – partly because they had a good defense anyway -- because he did pretty well with it and they were satisfied with that I never was. I thought he was much more than that."
-- Thrashers GM Rick Dudley

Potvin mentioned the much greater responsibility that a defenseman has, but also stressed the freedom that comes with it -- the kind of freedom Ramsay has granted Byfuglien and which has allowed him to flourish.

It's hard to think of others who have followed the mercurial path that Byfuglien has undertaken so successfully.

When Atlanta acquired defenseman Andy Sutton in 2002 from Minnesota, Jacques Lemaire was trying to make him into a wing. Atlanta successfully converted him back to defense. And in his Detroit days, Scotty Bowman would occasionally punish center Sergei Fedorov by playing him on defense.

Asked if he could think of another example, Potvin, when pressed, offered up Red Wings Hall of Famer Red Kelly. According to the official Web site of the Red Wings Alumni Association, Kelly would play left wing when injury necessitated it – exactly what got Byfuglien started on that same path.

In addition to all of the other skills that has made Byfuglien a potential

Norris candidate is his skating ability, which is often overlooked. Potvin says that, for a big man, Byfuglien's skating ability is equal to that of Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom or Philadelphia's Chris Pronger, with whom Byfuglien memorably dueled during the Stanley Cup Final.

McCrimmon agrees, mentioning a play from this past season in which Byfuglien was on defense for Chicago against Detroit and he and the fleet-footed forward Darren Helm were in a race for the puck. Byfuglien won the race and was able to hold off Helm.

McCrimmon also believes that one of the great ways that Byfuglien profited from his time at forward was to improve his offensive game.

"You're playing forward, you're skating and playing forward, but now you're put in offensive situations and he reacts offensively but from a defensive position," McCrimmon said.

Byfuglien also believes his time as a forward, attacking the net, has benefitted him in his latest reincarnation as a defenseman.

"It helps me around the net to know both positions," he said. "You know what the forwards are going through, you know what the 'D' are going through, so you know -- you can see it at both ends -- and I can't be afraid to go over and be like, 'Hey, I see this. You got to stretch.' I can relate to the forwards, too; so it definitely helps."

It has helped him to a team-leading 16 goals, which puts him on a pace to potentially hit the 30-goal plateau – almost unheard of for a defenseman. Since Kevin Hatcher scored 34 for Washington in 1992-93, only one other defenseman has hit that mark, another Capital in Mike Green, who netted 31 in 2008-09.

"I don't really look at it like that," said Byfuglien, whose career-high for goals is 19, "but if I can get 20 and keep going and see what happens, it just shows what I can do when I’m on the roll."

And what a roll it has been so far in 2010-11.

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