A quick consultation with accepted hockey lore would have you believe Dustin Byfuglien has picked the right season to shine.
Few things carry more caché in the bottom-line business of sport than being known as a player who performs when push comes to shove. The late George Steinbrenner carried such a winning reputation in part because he employed Reggie Jackson, ‘Mr. October,’ in the late 1970s. Despite the circus antics of the past month, the majority of NBA teams would rather have Kobe Bryant and his mitt full of basketball bling than LeBron James, who is king of nothing yet.
Hockey has long valued the guys who seemingly find another gear in the post-season, though admittedly there tends to be some romanticism that skews the reality of certain situations.
More on that later.
Byfuglien’s monster 11-goal performance for the Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks last spring obviously bodes for what the still-developing 25-year-old has within, but the crucial question for the new Atlanta Thrasher isn’t necessarily, ‘What can you do for us in the clutch?’ the true test for Byfuglien in his new surroundings is more like, ‘What can you give us on Tuesday nights during the dog days of the season in places like Carolina or Columbus?’
Don’t worry; we haven’t been indoctrinated by George Costanza’s theories on living your life based on the opposite of every instinct you’ve ever had. In the grand hockey hierarchy, the ability to produce in the playoffs remains a highly valued asset.
But let’s not put the cart in front of the horse. The Blackhawks, as a perennial contender, need to know they have guys in their midst who can perform when the chips are down.
In Atlanta, the only chip flavor they know is barbequed bitterness. If that is to change, Byfuglien will have to bring his best efforts over an 82-game schedule as opposed to amping it up over a relatively concentrated – albeit important – period of time.
Byfuglien doesn’t yet have a 20-goal season on the books, but the good news for Atlanta GM Rick Dudley is that the big man should be equipped with more confidence than ever after his productive spring.
“The biggest thing with ‘Buff’ is he’s a pretty humble kid and he’s got to know just exactly what he’s capable of,” Dudley said when we caught up with him at last month’s draft in L.A. “When he played that final series, when he played against San Jose and all through the playoffs, I think he learned something about himself; he could dominate, even great defensemen, in the offensive zone when he wanted to.”
The final words in that paragraph are the key ones – “when he wanted to.” Based on his age and massive 6-foot-4, 257-pound frame, it’s fair to think of Byfuglien as a locomotive still building steam as it leaves the station.
Now he must chug toward becoming a consistent performer in a situation where he’s suddenly a go-to guy.
We alluded earlier to the notion there are some misconceptions around notable playoff heroes like Claude Lemieux and Tomas Holmstrom, like the belief they basically sleepwalk through eight months of hockey before flipping the switch and becoming prime-time players.
That’s not necessarily the case. Holmstrom’s career goals-per-game average is 0.24. His playoff clip is 0.26. Lemieux, the 1995 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, has long been lauded for his crunch-time exploits, there’s also very little to choose between his regular season output (0.31 goals per game) and his playoff performance (0.34).
In reality – and especially in the case of Holmstrom – it’s the type of goals he tends to score that become more valued in the playoffs, not that the sheer volume of his scoring spikes dramatically.
Point is, even guys with sterling big-game reps like ‘Homer’ and ‘Pepé’ don’t get a free pass in the regular season. Byfuglien’s 14 goals in 39 career playoff games equates to just less than a 30-goal pace over the course of 82 contests. In other words, exactly what Atlanta would love to get from a guy Dudley was very familiar with from his time in Chicago’s front office.
“Buff’s a wonderful kid, obviously I know him real well,” Dudley said. “Hopefully the playoffs went a long way to teaching him just how good he can be.”
Expectations on Byfuglien go well beyond goals, of course, especially because he’s already demonstrated an ability to dominate other big-bodied players, like Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo and Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger. That element of Byfuglien’s game certainly stood out to Atlanta’s new coach, Craig Ramsay.
“It’s hard to pick just one play, but his hit on Pronger later in the series (Game 5 of the final) really established for his team, ‘It’s OK boys. He’s not going to dominate us. We’re physically big enough and good enough to handle it’,” Ramsay said. “I think that’s a big part of what he can bring to us and he’s got great hands, I know he can score, but we just have to make sure everybody understands their role.”
Once those roles are established, it’s just a matter of understanding the curtain in Atlanta goes up in October. Otherwise it’ll be curtains again for the Thrashers long before April arrives.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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