What was that, J.R.? Byfuglien rocking Atlanta blueline

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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Dustin Byfuglien isn't expecting an apology any time soon. And as far as the big Atlanta Thrashers defenseman is concerned, well, it doesn't really matter.

"What are you going to do?" Byfuglien shrugged when asked about being dissed before the season began by former NHL star Jeremy Roenick. "I mean you can't really worry about what other people say. Everyone's entitled to their own opinion."

Dustin Byfuglien didn't get to enjoy Chicago's Stanley Cup triumph for long. (US Presswire)  
Dustin Byfuglien didn't get to enjoy Chicago's Stanley Cup triumph for long. (US Presswire)  
Roenick, of course, had many opinions during a long career that may well land him in the Hall of Fame, making comments that were often as controversial as they were memorable. But in this case chances are Roenick would rather people forget him calling Atlanta's decision to move Byfuglien back to the blue line "the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life."

Truth is, the decision has been anything but, with Byfuglien transitioning back to his natural position quite smoothly thank you very much. Into the second month of the second, the Minnesota native is tied for the league's scoring lead among defenseman and is a key reason the Thrashers have gotten off to one of their best starts ever.

Still, if Roenick was scratching his head before the fact, he probably wasn't alone. Especially in the aftermath of the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup run last spring.

Byfuglien played a starring role for the Blackhawks, except then he was a power forward. Along the way he became one of the team's most popular players with several headline-grabbing efforts, including five game-winners that helped him tie Patrick Kane for Chicago's playoff lead with 11 goals. And if that wasn't enough, the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder's crease battles with Philadelphia's imposing Chris Pronger during the Finals were among the most intriguing games-within-the-game during the series.

Even so, Byfuglien's fate was likely sealed well before then by the value of his $3 million annual contract, which was one of several the salary cap-stretched champs could no longer afford after the season. It forced a personnel purge that began only a couple of weeks after the victory parade and landed Byfuglien along with teammates Andrew Ladd, Brent Sopel and Ben Eager in Atlanta, where they joined GM Rick Dudley and associate coach John Torchetti as part of the Thrashers' new "Chicago South" identity.

"It kind of sucked when it finally happened because it was so fast, but I had a couple of drinks later and it didn't really matter," Byfuglien said. "The nice thing is that it happened sooner rather than later.

"It was great in Chicago, but everybody knew something had to happen and guys would have to go. It was just a question of when and who, so at least we had the summer to get used to it."

And to get used to the idea of playing on the back end again. Byfuglien was actually drafted as a defenseman when Chicago took him in 2003's eighth round, and he spent a fair amount of time on the blue line after cracking the Blackhawks' lineup permanently four years later. Last season Byfuglien logged major minutes on the blueline when Chicago lost defenseman Brian Campbell to injury, but he took his game to another level when he joined Jonathan Toews and Kane on the team's top line for the playoffs.

Still, Atlanta wasted little time announcing that it had different ideas about the new member of the team.

"A lot of people look at him and see a top forward, but we think he can also be one of the most dominating defensemen around too," said Torchetti. "We talked about it as a staff and we looked at what he'd done back there before and the kind of points he put up, and we thought this could be a really good fit.

"It was just a matter of getting him the reps, say 10 or 15 games to get comfortable because one of his traits is that he loves to join the rush. It's tough to teach D-guys that. You can teach them to come back but it's tough to get up front and to stay up there and be comfortable."

Byfuglien hasn't shown any signs of that particular problem this season, something he attributes to the fact that he isn't the only player on the Thrashers getting used to a different system under new head coach Craig Ramsey. In fact, despite calling himself a "stay-at-home" defenseman who has been partnered this season with a talented offensive-minded partner in Tobias Enstrom, Byfuglien has been the one jumping into the attack more often.

"It's getting better every game," Enstrom said. "We're learning to read off each other."

That's a good thing for the Thrashers because it provides Byfuglien with the kind of latitude that has allowed him to score a couple of highlight-reel goals already. One of them came last week against Buffalo when Byfuglien made an end-to-end rush, turning Sabres defenseman Steve Montador inside out before beating goalie Ryan Miller for the winner in overtime.

"So far it's been going well," Byfuglien said. "It's a pretty good situation here and I'm just trying to stay in my element."

Doesn't sound stupid, does it?

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