When the Atlanta Thrashers first acquired Dustin Byfuglien from the Chicago Blackhawks last summer, one of the first questions to arise is whether or not the Thrashers would keep him at forward or move him back to the blue line.
After all, Byfuglien is a natural defenseman. The term “natural” is used loosely, more in regard to the fact that he came up a defenseman through the minor league ranks, but that doesn’t mean the blue line is the best spot for him. Still, Atlanta made it very clear, very quickly, that Byfuglien would be coming in as a defenseman.
Though he was a household name in Chicago already, much of that due to the spelling and pronunciation of his last name, Byfuglien exploded onto the national stage in the playoffs in 2009-10, as he proved to be a key cog in the Blackhawks machine that won their first Stanley Cup since 1949.
Whenever there was a big play, it seemed like Buff was involved in some capacity. He spent almost all of the playoffs at forward, save some first round games against Nashville on the blue line. At forward, he built a reputation for getting inside a goaltender’s head (looking at you Roberto Luongo) and netting some timely goals.
Byfuglien’s skill set is one that you likely wouldn’t expect from a guy his size. Why would anyone expect a guy that stands 6’4″, with all that bulk, to be able to do anything besides wreak havoc down around the crease? Byfuglien did that and more for the Hawks. He’s a solid puck handler with strong hands around the net, making him more than just a big body that you can park in front of the opposing goaltender. He’s not the slowest guy on the ice, either.
But even after an exceptional playoff performance at forward, the Thrashers sought to move Big Buff back to defense. The results they saw were a bit mixed.
Early on, it looked as if the transition was going to be a seamless one. Byfuglien got off to a scorching start, and he ranked near the top of the league in points among defensemen. His 53 points were almost 20 higher than his previous career high, but back on the blue line, his impact ran deeper.
That wasn’t necessarily a good thing for the Thrashers. While many in Chicago feared a similar situation when he moved to the blue line against Nashville in the first round in 2010, Byfuglien’s penchant for jumping into the offensive play was one that he couldn’t shake, even playing back on defense. He has a decent shot from the point, but overall, he just doesn’t play the position nearly as well as you’d expect a top pairing defenseman should.
While Buff might not be capable of playing like a top d-man, the Jets are certainly paying him like he’s one. He’s going to be paid a touch over $5 million for the next five seasons. If the Jets want to see a return on their investment, they might want to see what he can do back up top.
Byfuglien is probably one of the more frustrating players in the game. He has the talent, and he’s much more than just a big body. He lacks the proper motivation when the stakes aren’t high, and that goes back to his Chicago days. He has a tendency to be lazy and play down to competition when a game is in the regular season, though there are few guys who can swing a game during the postseason like Byfuglien has proven to be capable of.
Perhaps Winnipeg is confident they can turn Byfuglien into more of a Brent Seabrook type, in that he’s capable of being a stay-at-home type of guy that a defenseman like Buff needs to be, but can also be a puck mover and a capable guy on the power play if need be.
But in a season where expectations aren’t high, and fans are simply happy just to have their team back, it might be worth a shot to see what Byfuglien can do back up top. We know he can score, but perhaps the Jets would see a bit more consistency from Byfuglien, if he were actually required to put points on the board.