The Blackhawks did what they had to do, so this is by no means a slight. In fact, I’m impressed that GM Stan Bowman managed to get under the cap, yet still hang onto Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Dave Bolland. Any team with that core will make the playoffs. But you realize just how scary good this team could have been were it not for the cap constraints that forced them to shed a handful of players over the summer.
Which brings us to a team right there with Chicago in the league standings – the Atlanta Thrashers. Atlanta’s leading scorer is Dustin Byfuglien, a 6-foot-5, 265-pounder who was a big part of Chicago’s Stanley Cup run. Second in scoring in Atlanta is Andrew Ladd, who was recently named team captain. The Thrashers’ third former Blackhawk is Ben Eager, who leads the team in penalty minutes and is one of the better shift disturbers in the game. It’s fair to say that without those three, the Thrashers would be out of the playoff picture.
Byfuglien, 25, is on pace for 80-plus points, more than double his career high. He’s also set to hit or slightly better his usual 85 to 95 penalty minutes and he already has five game-winning goals. Those numbers are gold in any fantasy format. He is also tied for ninth in the league in shots on goal with 93, within 16 shots of the recent king in that category – Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin. As if Byfuglien needed anything more to pad his value, but in most leagues he has dual position eligibility, able to be dressed as either a defenseman or a winger. Priceless.
Byfuglien’s career potential had always been that of a 65-point player, but I must admit that when the Thrashers announced in the summer they would be using him as a rearguard, I stroked him off of my lists. Atlanta? Defenseman? Uh, 35 points at best.
I haven’t been this wrong since proclaiming Colby Armstrong as a fantasy stud on Sidney Crosby’s line. But I’m not alone, thankfully. Nobody saw this coming, but those owners lucky enough to have him are probably among the leaders in their leagues. With 25 points in 24 games (and don’t forget, he didn’t even get his first point until Game 4), Byfuglien is well on his way to that 65-point upside I had him pencilled in for. But if he keeps rolling the way he is, I’ll have to pull out my eraser.
Meanwhile, Captain Ladd has 24 points in 24 contests, including points on the power play and while shorthanded. His three shorthanded points have him tied for fourth in the league and his 10 power-play points are tied for 19th. Ladd has always been that player who could post in the 70- to 75-points range, but like many players he needed a few years to get to that level in the NHL. In Chicago, it wouldn’t have happened as a third-liner and part-time second-liner. But in Atlanta, he has been their top gun, which is just what the doctor ordered. He is seeing more than 19 minutes per game and has only gone two consecutive games without a point just once. Both he and Byfuglien find themselves in ideal situations to succeed and they’re making the most of it.
Finally, there is Ben Eager. The one player of the three who is “only” playing to expectations. The oft-injured winger could be a 45-point, 200-PIM player if he could stay healthy, but he has yet to take advantage of added opportunity in Atlanta. He’s rolling at his usual 20-point, 150-PIM pace and that’s exactly what fantasy owners expected. Ah well, I still don’t think the Thrashers are complaining about their summer deal with Chicago…
The key player that Chicago received in return in those Atlanta deals (other than the high draft picks, that is) is left winger Jeremy Morin. After an impressive training camp, Morin has stumbled a little offensively in his first pro season with American League Rockford. He has just five points in his past 12 games. But Rockford as a team is struggling, scoring the third-fewest goals in the league. Morin should still make the Blackhawks next fall.
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