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  • With position change, Byfuglien now among NHL's elite Print
    Written by Dan Marrazza   
    Thursday, 31 January 2013 14:53

    When the Chicago Blackhawks won the 2010 Stanley Cup, Dustin Byfuglien was a key member of their run; at left wing. Now, less than three years later, Byfuglien is a key defenseman of the Winnipeg Jets, and one of the NHL's best and most intimidating blueliners.

    If you ask anybody who has ever seen Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien play what their first impression of him was, the word “big” would probably be included somewhere in their analysis.

    After all, at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, Byfuglien is one of the taller, and certainly one of the heaviest players in the NHL.

    But while his size and alliterative “Big Buff” nickname jointly call attention to his physical stature, the fact that’s occasionally lost is that Byfuglien is starting to mature into being one of the more valuable, versatile and impressive defensemen in the NHL. Even more impressive than the defenseman Byfuglien is today might be that he is a premier defenseman while only being in his third season at the position at the NHL level, after having started his career as a forward with the Chicago Blackhawks.

    Actually, it is borderline remarkable how smoothly Byfuglien has switched positions and become a standout defenseman.

    Besides remarkable, Byfuglien’s rapid transformation from being a top-six forward to a workhorse defenseman begs the question of how high his ceiling as a defenseman truly is, given that he’s already one of the best in the world at a position that most of his peers have played their entire lives.

    “Buff has a very unique set of skills,” said current teammate Evander Kane of Byfuglien. “The first thing is that his shot is one of the hardest and heaviest in the League. When goalies can’t get a look at it, it’s pretty much impossible to stop.”

    Through the 2012-13 NHL season’s first two weeks, Byfuglien’s wicked slap shot has wreaked havoc on NHL goalies, with all of his Jets co-leading three goals this season coming off top-shelf blasts from the left point that have been virtually invisible to the human eye, let alone savable.

    Although using the Jets’ first six games to grade Byfuglien’s offensive prowess might seem like a relatively small sample size, all the start of this season has really done is bolster his offensive resume. In fact, Byfuglien entered Thursday tied with Nashville’s Shea Weber and Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson for the most goals by an NHL defenseman (35) since he first switched to the back line on a full-time basis at the start of the 2010-11 season.

    “You can have forwards score all night long,” said Jets goalie Al Montoya. “But any team could tell you that if you don’t have D who put up points, you’re not going to make the playoffs or win a championship.”

    Considering that Byfuglien is coming off back-to-back 53-point seasons as a defenseman after having been a top-six forward on a Stanley Cup-winning team, it probablyDustin Byfuglien isn’t that hard to sell the case that he has one of the most well-rounded offensive skill sets of any defenseman in the League.

    When you add in that Byfuglien is the leader in average time-on-ice (26:58) and is regularly utilized against other teams’ top forwards for a Winnipeg team which has surprised many pundits with an solid 3-2-1 record to start the season, it becomes clearer that Byfuglien brings more to the table as a defenseman than lots of offense.

    “For as many points as he puts up, he does an unbelievable job in the D zone,” said Montoya of Byfuglien. “His communication in the D zone is great. He’s a big guy out there that moves people, so all I have to worry about is stopping the first shot.”

    Given that Byfuglien’s immense size and hulking strength are such vital reasons that he’s so hard for opposing forwards to match up against, it’s almost ironic to think that he was once thought of as almost being “too big” to be a hockey player.

    However, when Byfuglien started playing junior hockey with the Prince George Cougars in the Western Hockey League at age 17, he weighed over 280 pounds and seemed too out-of-shape and sluggish to excel in a sport where speed and agility are crucially important.

    Coaches and scouts came up with dozens of reasons why they thought Byfuglien’s weight as a teenager—which was heavier than any player in NHL history—would hold his hockey career back. And with most of these reasons linked to a perceived lack of effort and discipline, Byfuglien’s stock as a prospect plummeted.

    The “lazy” moniker which hounded Byfuglien during his junior years enabled Chicago to be able to snatch him up late in the 2003 NHL Draft, 245th overall in the eighth round. Or, to look at it from a different perspective, the Blackhawks chose Byfuglien with a draft pick so late that it no longer even exists, with the NHL having since shrunk the Draft to seven rounds and 211 picks per year.

    Despite his draft round casting him as a long shot to ever even play in the NHL, Byfuglien started emerging as a bona fide prospect during his final two junior seasons in Prince George, following his draft year.

    Then again, the latter stages of his junior career were also when Byfuglien started losing weight. So it can really be said that he emerged as an NHL prospect once he started applying himself more and lost weight, for which the predictable side effects were increased foot speed and stamina to go along with the natural abilities with which he had gotten by on, all along.

    As much as losing 20 pounds increased Byfuglien’s foot speed, even quicker was his ascent to the NHL after his junior career, with the native of Roseau, Minnesota skating in 25 games in a Blackhawks uniform during his first professional season in 2005-06.

    From there, Byfuglien quickly became a Blackhawks regular, where the speed he gained from losing weight and his still very imposing 260-pound frame allowed him to overwhelmingly punish opponents, perhaps most notably during each of Chicago’s four playoff-series victories en route to the 2010 Stanley Cup.

    Byfuglien so badly physically overmatched opposing defensemen on hockey’s largest stage that he captured NHL general managers’ imaginations, too, with GMs only being able to dream as to what could happen if Byfuglien switched from forward to defense, where he had occasionally filled in during his time in Chicago.

    After all, if Byfuglien created matchup problems for defensemen when playing 15 minutes per night as a forward, his becoming a full-time defenseman could enable him to be used to create similar matchup problems against opposing forwards for up to 20 or 25 minutes per game.

    Not to mention, positioning Byfuglien back at the point would allow him to utilize his most potent offensive tool—his slap shot—more often, which would allow him to continue to be an offensive force while being able to be used for five or 10 more minutes per game.

    Although it’s hard to say if Byfuglien would have ever fit in as a defenseman on a Chicago roster which still had Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook eating up the lion’s share of important minutes, the path for him to switch positions was cleared wide open when the Blackhawks dealt him to the Atlanta Thrashers in a salary cap-clearing maneuver just days after Chicago hoisted the Stanley Cup in June of 2010.

    What started as a Thrashers experiment has since turned into a Jets treasure, with Byfuglien having now fully settled into his new position in his franchise’s new city, while starting to reach personal heights far beyond anything he ever accomplished as a forward.

    Besides being named an NHL All-Star in each of his two full seasons as a defenseman, Byfuglien has actually produced more offensively as a defenseman than he did as a forward, with his back-to-back 53-point seasons the last two years both being substantially more productive than the 34, 36 and 31-point totals he had accumulated the prior three years as a forward.

    In addition to boosting his offensive stats, Byfuglien’s overall place on his team has grown since he’s switched positions, considering he’s been his team’s only All-Star in each of the last two seasons, when during his time with the Blackhawks he was constantly overshadowed by more established stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.

    Factoring in that Byfuglien is still only 27-years-old and will likely become more adept in various nuances of defensive hockey as he gets even more experience, it’s hard to conclusively say that what we’re seeing from Byfuglien right now is even the best hockey we will ever see of him.

    Or to phrase it in the form of a question, what we should really be asking is “how big can Dustin Byfuglien get?”

    Then again, considering he only truly emerged as a legitimate NHL prospect and star player after losing weight, “bigger” might not be the something Byfuglien will be looking to become.

    But better?

    That just seems like something he’s well on his way to being.
    Photos by Getty Images



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    Last Updated on Thursday, 31 January 2013 17:38