The Dustin Byfuglien experiment is working out well so far for the Atlanta Thrashers

When the Chicago Blackhawks received a nice haul from the Atlanta Thrashers in a deal that featured Dustin Byfuglien, many people thought GM Rick Dudley gave up too much. Upon hearing that Dudley, coach Craig Ramsay and the jumbo-sized skater all agreed with the idea to move him back to his original position on defense, many people jeered.

(I was in that group to some extent, as I felt that the Thrashers’ greatest strength was their offensive ability on defense before adding Byfuglien.)

Well, it’s too early to officially say that Byfuglien and the Thrashers will make everyone eat some puck-flavored crow, but the experiment is passing with flying colors so far. Byfuglien’s highest moment as a Thrasher might have come tonight, as he scored a game-winning overtime goal and also produced an assist to help his team beat the struggling Buffalo Sabres.

Whether you judge him as a defenseman with a hellacious slapper or a gigantic winger whose big body can block the vision of even the largest goalies, he’s been outstanding in 2010-11. Byfuglien scored four goals and five assists for nine points in 10 games this season, with the only real blemish being his -4 rating.

It’s no accident that he’s producing at a higher level, either, as the skilled player is averaging far and away the most ice time of his six-year career, with more than 21 minutes per game. (He never averaged more than a little above 17 minutes per game in Chicago).

Now, one of the biggest critiques of Byfuglien’s game was that the enormous physical force would take a few nights off here and there, so it’s not safe to assume that he’ll maintain anything close to his near point-per-game pace during the entire year. Still, with that big boost of confidence he received from being frequently dominant during the 2010 playoffs, more ice time than ever and the financial incentive of a contract year, this could be a … well, Byfuglien-sized season for the young hybrid player.

It just goes to show you that the people paid to put together teams might know better than the rest of us every now and then.

Oilers go captain-less, name four alternates instead

1 Comment

Edmonton’s made a fairly significant shift in its leadership group.

The big news is the Oilers won’t have a captain this season, as Andrew Ference will relinquish the “C” he’s worn for the last two years.

Ference will, however, remain part of the group and wear an “A” as part of a four-man alternate captain collective, one that also includes Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall.

The news of Ference being removed as captain doesn’t come as a huge surprise. The veteran d-man is a well-respected leader, but isn’t expected to be in the lineup every night this season.

The decision to go without a captain, though, is something of a surprise, especially given what new head coach Todd McLellan endured during his final season in San Jose.

The Sharks’ captaincy issue — stripping Joe Thornton, then going with four rotating alternates — was an ongoing problem, something that players, coaches and GM Doug Wilson had to repeatedly address until it blew up in spectacular fashion.

That said, the circumstances in Edmonton are quite different.

It’s believed the club’s intentionally keeping the captaincy vacant, on the assumption that Connor McDavid will evolve into a superstar and, subsequently, the club’s unquestioned leader.

Finally, McLellan noted that with Eberle currently sidelined, a fifth Oiler would be added to the leadership group — veteran forward Matt Hendricks, who will serve as a temporary alternate.

Brandon Sutter didn’t have the greatest preseason

1 Comment

When Brandon Sutter was acquired by the Vancouver Canucks, GM Jim Benning called the 26-year-old a “foundation piece for our group going forward.”

Sutter was quickly signed to a five-year extension worth almost $22 million, more evidence of how highly management thought of the player.

Fast forward to yesterday, when Benning was asked the following question:

“What does it say that you made the trade for Sutter, you called him a ‘foundation’ player, and it took him until the final night of the preseason to find a spot (with the Sedins) on the wing, which isn’t his natural position?”

Here was Benning’s response:

“Well, [head coach Willie Desjardins] wants to try that out, he thinks that’s going to be a good fit. At various times, the Sedins played with wingers with speed, with [Ryan Kesler], who could get in on the forecheck and had a good shot. Sutter brings some of those qualities, too.”

While all that may be true, Sutter was not signed to play the wing; he was brought in to play center, specifically on the second line. He finished the preseason with zero points in five games. And as mentioned, he’ll start the season on the wing, not his natural position.

Meanwhile, youngsters Bo Horvat, 20, and Jared McCann, 19, had outstanding camps and are expected to start the regular season (tonight in Calgary) centering the second and third lines, respectively.

Though Sutter did finish the preseason with 12 shots on goal, up there with the most on the Canucks, it’s fair to say he did not look like a “foundation” player.

“I haven’t seen him play his best,” Desjardins said last week. “I see a guy who’s big and a good skater and who understands the game real well, but just hasn’t got that involved.”

Now, we are only talking about the preseason here. New players often take time to get comfortable. Perhaps playing with the Sedins can provide Sutter with some confidence.

“I know he’ll be there and I totally believe that,” said Desjardins.

But it hasn’t been the best start, and if it wasn’t for the encouraging play of the youngsters, it would be a far bigger story in Vancouver.

Related: Canucks roll the dice on rookies, waive Vey and Corrado