When the Atlanta Thrashers acquired Dustin Byfuglien from the Chicago Blackhawks to help
bail the Blackhawks out of salary cap hell beef up their forward unit, it was viewed as a savvy move from Thrashers GM Rick Dudley. After all, a young team looking to rebuild sort of from the ground up after trading away Ilya Kovalchuk, getting a physical force to work the front of the net can help set the tone of games. It sure worked for the Blackhawks propelling them to win the Stanley Cup.
In what might turn out to be one of the most surprising moves of the off-season, it turns out that Dustin Byfuglien might turn out to be less of a power forward and more of an offensive defenseman, a move that GM Rick Dudley is more than ready to make as Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal Constitution finds out in a Q&A session with Dudley.
Q. It appears the defense is close to being set with several players, like Arturs Kulda, competing for final spot. Would that be a fair statement?
A. I think Kulda has a chance to challenge for regular duty – as do some other people. A lot of it depends on what we do with Dustin [Byfuglien]. If we decide to play him at defense, it’s a much more difficult defense to make. If we decide to play him at forward, there is some room. A lot of that will depend on the people. If we have a guy that looks pretty good – like I look at [Alexey] Zubarev, he’s a pretty talented guy; same thing with Kulda and Freddy Meyers is a guy that’s proven can play in the NHL. All those guys have a chance to play regularly. They just have to show it. If we made a decision that we didn’t need to play Byfuglien at defense, that would be a reason why.
Q. So you are saying that it’s a real possibility that Byfuglien will switch to defense?
A. It’s a position that he likes to play. It’s a position that I thought he was well on his way to being a top, top defenseman in Chicago. We moved him to forward because we had no size up front. Obviously, he proved to be a very effective forward but that doesn’t mean he’s not an effective defenseman. Ultimately, if [coach] Craig [Ramsay] says he doesn’t want to play him at defense, it’s unlikely he’ll play on defense. Truthfully, I want to see [him switch]. He can score. He can score 15 goals as a defenseman. He’s got one of the hardest shots in the game.
If you’re thinking this is a crazy thing for the Thrashers to be doing… It might be, but not for the reasons you’re thinking. Byfuglien came up through the Chicago system as a defenseman. I even witnessed such a game myself while he was a member of the Norfolk Admirals. He even played a handful of games as a defenseman for the Blackhawks last season.
While most will know Byfuglien for his net presence and ability to score up front, he does indeed have a big shot. At his size (6’4′ 250 pounds) he’d make for a menacing defenseman but is that where his skills are best suited? Considering his goal totals as a forward the last three seasons for the Blackhawks have been 19,15 and 17 is getting that sort of production from the blueline is a lot more difficult.
Moving Byfuglien to defense also tweaks the Thrashers forward depth and puts the pressure on their youth to step it up in training camp. Kids like 2010 first round pick Alexander Burmistrov or Angelo Esposito could have a big opportunity to make the NHL roster for the first time. To say the least, things are going to be exciting in Atlanta one way or the other.