DULUTH, Ga. – Dustin Byfuglien wreaked havoc around the net in the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, tying for the team lead with 11 goals as the Chicago Blackhawks won the championship.
Now he is with a new team—playing a new position. Well, it’s not that new.
Byfuglien heads into this season adjusting to life with the Atlanta Thrashers and back to his original position on defence. The Thrashers hope he thrives in coach Craig Ramsey’s go-go system.
“I enjoy defence more than I enjoy forward,” said the six-foot-five, 265-pound Byfuglien.
The Thrashers, who obtained the 25-year-old Minnesota and three other Blackhawks in a pair of deals.
Byfuglien said that he couldn’t be happier with the change, although on the surface it’s somewhat baffling after the way he had used his speed and size so well at forward. He scored five game-winning goals during the Blackhawks’ run to the Stanley Cup.
Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley talked to Byfuglien about the potential return to defence as soon as the trade was made and Ramsey, who wants his defenceman to contribute to the offence by joining the rush, signed off on the switch before the start of training camp.
“We’d like to see Buff play defence,” Ramsey said. “We think he can do it. I think he can bring something to the table.”
The Thrashers open the season Friday against Washington and Byfuglien played in just two of the six preseason games because of a tender ankle. But he says the return to his old position hasn’t been a difficult transition despite the shortage of game action.
“So far, so good,” Byfuglien said after Monday’s practice.
The Thrashers made the switch despite not having a proven go-to goal scorer after the trade of Ilya Kovalchuk to New Jersey at the deadline last season. But Ramsey, who took over for John Anderson as coach, believes in giving four lines substantial minutes and generating offence from his blue-line as well as his forwards.
“I want to establish myself as a defenceman,” Byfuglien said. “That’s what I always played coming up.
“I think I did a good job at forward in Chicago, but I think I can be the player on defence that I was at forward. I’d like to add that tool to my bag. I think I’ll fit in here very well on defence.”
Ramsey said Byfuglien’s enthusiasm has been wonderful.
“He’s got a ways to go, but he’s a big body back there with a good stick, which is really a nice thing to have,” Ramsey said. “And he can jump up from there (to join the rush), which makes him hard to cover.”
Thrashers forward Ben Eager says his former Chicago teammate is a difficult matchup wherever he is on the ice.
“He’s tough to play against no matter where he’s at,” Eager said. “He skates really well for a big guy.
“When he gets going, he’s a handful to stop out there.”
The Thrashers were 0-5-1 in the preseason as the old and the new players tried to get used to Ramsey’s system.
“We’re still learning everything. It takes I while to get the old stuff out of your head,” Byfuglien said. “But it’s going to be fun. It’s a good system.”
Having former Blackhawks teammates Eager, Andrew Ladd and Brent Sopel with him has made for a smooth transition off the ice. “It makes it a lot easier,” Byfuglien said.
The Thrashers have reached the playoffs just once in their history and have never won a post-season game. But Byfuglin, who played three seasons in Chicago, likens his new team to where the Blackhawks were just a few years ago.
“I think there is a big upside here,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of young, hard-working players and some veterans who know how to win. I see a lot of good things. I think it’s going to be exciting.”