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New Thrasher Byfuglien moves back to old position

by John Manasso /
DULUTH, Ga. -- Dustin Byfuglien's magical adventure in playing forward began in his third year as a professional.
The Chicago Blackhawks, then coached by Denis Savard, were on a road trip and a number of the forwards had taken ill. Byfuglien, until that point a defenseman, was asked by Savard -- almost on a whim, to hear Byfuglien tell it -- to fill in at forward.
"Before I knew it we were down to like 2 ½ lines and I was still in the rotation," Byfuglien said on his first day of training camp with the Atlanta Thrashers, the team to which he was traded just a few short weeks after winning the Stanley Cup with Chicago in June. "So it went well and I played for the rest of that road trip and I don't think I went back for a while."
Byfuglien's wild ride as a forward in 2009-10 led him to 17 goals during the regular season – and, much more memorably, 11 goals in 22 playoff games, including five in five straight games.
Seemingly on a lark, Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley, who worked in Chicago's organization for five seasons before moving to Atlanta last year as associate general manager, announced in August that the team might try Byfuglien on defense. The concept seems to have stuck.
New coach Craig Ramsay said at a media luncheon on Thursday that adding Byfuglien to the blue line corps of Zach Bogosian, Ron Hainsey, Johnny Oduya, Tobias Enstrom and Brent Sopel "would really solidify our defense."
If he is distressed by the change, the carefree Byfuglien hardly seems to show it, saying, "It doesn't matter where I am. I'm happy. It's just getting comfortable back on the point now."
Defenseman Brent Sopel came to Atlanta from Chicago in the same trade and has seen Byfuglien make the transition back and forth from defense to forward over the previous three seasons.
"Buff's that kind of guy -- he's an easy going guy," Sopel said of Byfuglien's handling of the situation. "He doesn't get riled too easy. If they could do a study on CNN or Fox or anything like that, the less stress you're going to have, the longer you're going to live. He doesn't have a lot of stress but he cares he's about the game. He's passionate about the game and he knows where to go with it."
When his then-Chicago teammate Brian Campbell went down in March with a shoulder injury after being belted into the boards by Washington's Alex Ovechkin, Byfuglien filled in on defense. He estimated that it was 10 to 15 games plus the first three games of the Blackhawks' first-round series against Nashville.

Dudley explained the thought process when he contemplated the change.
"I know Dustin likes to play defense," he said. "That was one thing.… Denis Savard needed Dustin up front and he moved to forward and did pretty well, obviously. He's an inordinately talented guy. I won't deny that. He's very effective. I once had this conversation with Savvy at the end of one of year. He said, ‘See, Duds, he's a forward. He's got 19 goals as a forward.' But I said, ‘What if he had a 15-goal season as a defenseman?' Good question."
Dudley said Byfuglien has "a certain calm about him with the puck that I really like from a defenseman" and that he has "soft hands," which he thinks is a huge asset. Both he and Sopel talked about Byfuglien's cannon of a shot.
On Saturday, Byfuglien seemed to agree with Dudley's assessment of his favored position.
"Defense always makes it a little easier to make the transition to go up forward," Byfuglien said. "You can see the ice and the game a little better." And, he added, "You get more ice time. You see the game so much better back there."
Sopel marveled at Byfuglien's combination of size (6-foot-4, 257 pounds) and mobility, saying it's "a dream" and that Byfuglien is "genetically gifted."
"I wish I had that aspect where I could play forward and defense to the ability that he does," Sopel said. "He's a rare breed. There aren't a lot of people who can do what he does. It definitely makes our team a lot better."

"It doesn’t matter where I am. I’m happy. It’s just getting comfortable back on the point now."
-- Dustin Byfuglien

And on the initial day of camp, which featured a fair bit of scrimmaging to allow Ramsay to learn more about the players, the coach appeared to like what he saw.
"Dustin, one thing, great effort," Ramsay said. "I told the boys I want them to jump up the ice. He certainly had no trouble with that. He's very involved offensively. But there's some work on the defensive end of it and that's to be expected.
"Here's a guy who played forward most of the year. He's got some work to do, but I look at what I think defensemen should do [and] there's a lot to adjust. But that's the nature of a new coach. All of them have something to learn for what I want."
Byfuglien seems to be handling his move to defense better than finding his way around Atlanta, as he said he's been "whipping a lot of U-turns." With his devil-may-care attitude, he seems inspired by his new challenge – even if it came on the heels of winning the Cup.
"It's kind of a bummer," he said, "but after you sit down and thought about it, I had a big smile on my face and I was like, ‘All right, I get to try a new place.'"
And a new position.

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