Dustin Byfuglien might be a defenseman for Atlanta this season

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dustinbyfuglien1.jpgWhen 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.

Three questions for Senators in 2019-20

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Ottawa Senators.

Let’s take a look at three questions surrounding the Senators that don’t revolve around mercurial owner Eugene Melnyk.

1. Can D.J. Smith start building something?

Ideally, Smith will begin with Ottawa much like David Quinn started his time with the Rangers: as a coach with very limited expectations.

Honestly, it would probably be best if the Senators “lost respectably” in 2019-20. Score some goals, excite some fans, and maybe distract from the mess surrounding the team at times.

In the grand scheme of things, Smith will be able to help Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk to continue their ascent up the rankings among young NHL blue chippers, while also helping to develop the team’s more mid-range prospects. Bonus points if Smith can also put veteran players in the right situation for “pump and dumps” during the trade deadline, whether that means helping Craig Anderson maximize his value, or merely others in positions to succeed.

Basically, there are ways Smith can “succeed” even if the Senators don’t really win the battle on the scoreboard very often. They don’t seem to have the weapons necessary to light up many scoreboards, either way.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. What defines “success” for this team, in general?

And that really brings it to another question: what should Ottawa really be striving for?

Yes, there’s a chance that Smith innovates and this team overachieves, but even if that happens, what’s the ceiling for such situations?

The worst-case scenario might be that the Senators play so well that they end up in the playoff bubble, but can’t quite make it, so they also end up with a mediocre first-rounder. It would also be quite bad if a relatively competent Senators team inspired Pierre Dorion to decide against trading veterans who aren’t likely to be part of the future, from Anderson to Ron Hainsey to maybe even a more borderline case like Chris Tierney.

Yes, there’s some young talent in Ottawa, but they should be greedy and try to grab as much as they can. Especially since it’s unclear how many of their current prospects will actually move the needle. After watching the Avalanche use their fourth overall pick in 2019, the Senators could really use at least one more player in that range.

Being realistic about their chances is pretty important, and it’s part of what makes Dorion such an X-factor.

3. Can the Senators get some stops?

Despite having Mark Stone and Matt Duchene for a significant chunk of the 2018-19 season, the Senators still were outscored by 59 goals, allowing an NHL-worst 301.

Losing Stone, in particular, should make it that much tougher to keep the goal differential battle respectable, as Stone is one of those rare wingers who gets very deserved attention as a Selke candidate. On paper, there’s little reason to believe that Ottawa will be a particularly competitive team, especially with so many young players learning on the job.

Maybe D.J. Smith’s system might make life a little easier for Craig Anderson, though? Anderson suffered through some terrible play the past two seasons (.898 save percentage in 2017-18, not much better with .903 in 2018-19), yet the 38-year-old has had some great runs in the past, often when people least expected it.

Even with great goaltending, the Senators’ chances are limited, but it would probably do a lot for their collective psyche – and maybe even their young players’ development – if they could at least put up a fight most nights.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Senators GM must manage a rebuild — and Melnyk

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Ottawa Senators.

Ottawa handing Colin White a six-year, $28.5 million contract was more than just conveniently timed for Senators Day here at PHT. It was also a pivotal moment for a big Senators X-factor: GM Pierre Dorion.

To be more specific, this team’s future hinges on how Dorion manages the Senators’ rebuild … and in what might be an even bigger challenge: managing owner Eugene Melnyk.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

You don’t have to be an accountant to notice that, at least in the short term, the vast majority of the Senators’ moves have been about saving money. It’s to the point that people are already joking that White will be long gone from Ottawa before his actual salary peaks at $6.25M in 2024-25:

But that really was an eye-opening signing because it shows that Dorion can occasionally convince Melnyk to fork over dough for “core players.”

It will be interesting, then, to see how the rest of that core develops, as there are some other potentially pivotal contracts to sign, and Dorion will eventually need to add pieces, whether that means NHL-ready players through trades and free agency, or additional prospects through the volume of draft picks the team has (painfully) accumulated by trading away the likes of Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, and Matt Duchene.

Consider Thomas Chabot the next pressing test case. He’s entering the last year of his rookie contract, so will Ottawa get that done briskly, or will that situation linger ominously? There’s nightmare scenarios where another team poaches Chabot with an offer sheet, knowing that Melnyk seems allergic to signing bonuses.

Dorion truly needs Melnyk on board in cases like these, especially since more are on the horizon, notably with Brady Tkachuk‘s entry-level contract expiring after 2020-21.

There are a ton of factors that could sway things as time goes on, from Seattle’s expansion draft to possibly even a new CBA forming as the Senators’ rebuild goes along. Such thoughts might complicate things if Melnyk believes that a new CBA would be kinder to his wallet.

But, even in the shorter term, Dorion could make some interesting moves if he’s creative — and in cases like retaining salary to get trades done, if he can get Melnyk to buy in.

I’ve already argued that the Senators should embrace short-term pain for long-term gains, not unlike the Hurricanes absorbing Patrick Marleau’s buyout to land a first-round pick. That’s not to say Ottawa needs to clone such moves detail by detail; instead, the point is that Dorion should be creative, and also embrace the likely reality that this team is unlikely to be any good this season, so they might as well build for the future.

That’s where the 2019-20 season presents interesting opportunities.

Craig Anderson seems long in the tooth, but he’s surprised us before with seemingly random near-elite years, and what better time for the 38-year-old to pull another rabbit out of a hat than this one, where he’s in the last season of a deal that carries a $4.75M cap hit?

That sounds like a hefty sum today, but it would be manageable for a contender around trade deadline time, where they could “rent” Anderson. Maybe Ottawa would take on a contract a contender doesn’t want (perhaps Anderson to the Calgary Flames in a deal that involves Cam Talbot and Michael Frolik, if Talbot doesn’t work out) for the price of picks and prospects?

Ottawa doesn’t have marquee trade bait like they did with Karlsson, Duchene, and Stone last year, but you can land nice assets for mid-level players, too, from Anderson to someone like Chris Tierney.

There’s only so much Dorion can do about Melnyk’s penny-pinching ways, whether the Senators owner is truly just being “cost-conscious” now only to eventually spend when it’s time to contend, or if that “unparalleled success” talk was merely just talk.

But as we’ve seen with teams like the Carolina Hurricanes, you can build something pretty special even while dealing with budget constraints. You need some creativity from a GM, and an owner who will spend money when it counts.

Is Dorion up to the task? So far, the results have been mixed, but how he handles this situation (now, and in the future) is an enormous X-factor for the Senators.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Former Rangers and ‘Miracle on Ice’ player charged in attack

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GRAND MARAIS, Minn. — Mark Pavelich, a forward on the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic hockey team who went on to play for the New York Rangers and two other NHL teams, has been charged with assault for allegedly beating a neighbor with a metal pole and breaking several of the man’s bones.

The 61-year-old Pavelich allegedly attacked his neighbor last week at Pavelich’s home in the small Lake Superior community of Lutsen, Minnesota, after they returned from fishing, authorities allege in the criminal complaint. Pavelich told investigators he believed the man had “spiked” his beer, leading to the alleged attack, the complaint says.

First responders found the neighbor in shock with “obvious disfigurement of his leg,” KMSP-TV reported. He also had a bruised kidney, two cracked ribs and a fractured vertebra.

Pavelich faces charges of second- and third-degree assault, possession of an illegal shotgun and receiving a gun with an altered or missing serial number. During a hearing Monday in Cook County District Court, the judge ordered a mental competency hearing for Pavelich, who didn’t have an attorney listed in online court records as of Wednesday.

He remains in custody in lieu of $250,000 bail, the Star Tribune reported.

Pavelich played five seasons with the Rangers and parts of one season each with the Minnesota North Stars and San Jose Sharks, compiling 137 goals and 192 assists in 355 NHL games. He also played professionally in Europe.

Pavelich had two assists in the United States’ 4-3 win over the Soviet Union in the semifinals of the 1980 Olympic tournament. The U.S. went on to beat Finland in the final to win the gold medal.

In 2012, his 44-year-old wife, Kara, died in an accidental fall from a second-story balcony at their home. Two years later, Pavelich sold his gold medal for $262,900 through an auction house, saying he wanted to help his adult daughter.

Wild names Bill Guerin new general manager

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Bill Guerin is finally getting a chance to run an NHL team and he has a big challenge ahead of him.

The Minnesota Wild has announced the hiring of the 48-year-old Guerin as their new general manager. He will replace Paul Fenton, who was fired in July after only one season.

“Bill has been a winner throughout his hockey career and I am extremely pleased to be able to add his experience to our organization and The State of Hockey,” said Wild owner Craig Leipold.

Guerin has worked for the Pittsburgh Penguins organization since 2011 starting as a development coach before moving his way up to assistant GM under Jim Rutherford. He spent 18 seasons in the NHL and won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins and the New Jersey Devils.

Leipold and team president Matt Majka headed the search for Fenton’s replacement and were helped out by executive advisor and Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, who played with Guerin for three seasons with the Dallas Stars as well as the United States national team. Guerin had been a candidate for several GM jobs over the last few years, and even interviewed with the Wild last summer before they hired Fenton.

[MORE: Will Wild learn from the failed Fenton era?]

The Wild failed to qualify for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, this first time they’ve missed since 2012. With a roster loaded with older veterans eating up cap space and sprinkled in with some young talent, there will be plenty of work for Guerin to do to try and figure out a way to make the franchise a consistent winner again. There is no teardown coming as part of a full rebuild and it’s going to be a long wait before some of the contracts on their books expire. Guerin will have to get creative in order to infuse the roster with new blood and hope some of the organization’s youngsters take big steps forward.

Despite the turbulent off-season, the confident from up top in the organization is high.

“I believe we are a playoff team,” Leipold said after Fenton’s firing. “We have to get everybody believing that and moving in the same direction.”

MORE:
Do Wild have short-term path back to playoffs?

• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.