Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
What started out as an experiment has become a runaway success just two months into the NHL season.
I'll admit, when the Atlanta Thrashers announced that they were switching the newly-acquired Dustin Byfuglien back to defense, it didn't exactly seem to be a stroke of genus.
Sure, Byfuglien was originally drafted by Chicago as a defenseman and played a little on the blue line with the Blackhawks, but there was no question prior to this season his greatest success as an NHLer had come as forward.
Byfuglien simply dominated as a winger in last year's playoffs, scoring 11 goals in 22 games while helping the Blackhawks win their first Stanley Cup title since 1961. Byfuglien had such a superb postseason that it naturally came as a surprise when Chicago opted to deal him to the Thrashers just prior to the June draft.
Of course, the Blackhawks made many changes to their roster this offseason as general manager Stan Bowman tried to make Chicago's cap situation more manageable. But, not identifying Byfuglien as an essential part of the team's core group could come back to haunt the Blackhawks.
Dustin Byfuglien is a risk-taking defensemen, a player who likes to be aggressive offensively and join the rush.
With his 6-foot-5, 265-pound frame and surprising speed, Byfuglien the winger was simply too much for the opposition to handle. And, as it turns out, that combination of size and quickness may be even more dangerous when it's coming at you from the back end.
"I don't think there's anyone else in the league with his size, skating ability, and skill," Andrew Ladd, a teammate of Byfuglien's in both Chicago and Atlanta, told the Thrashers' official web site. "When he's going top speed there's no one that can stop him. He's a pretty special player and we're lucky to have him."
The Thrashers were obviously hopeful that the switch to defense would benefit both them and Byfuglien, but there is little chance the club thought it would work out as well as it has so far.
Through his first 25 games of the season, Byfuglien is leading all NHL defensemen in goals (10) and points (27) and he has to be one of the early favorites to win the Norris Trophy as the league's top blueliner.
Byfuglien's style of play in Atlanta has certainly been fun to watch. He is a risk-taking defensemen, a player who likes to be aggressive offensively and join the rush. At times, Byfuglien, who has five game-winning goals this season, has turned around Atlanta's fortunes with a well-timed end-to-end rush to the net.
Possibly the best example of Byfuglien's game-changing ability came Oct. 29 against the visiting Buffalo Sabres. Byfuglien took the puck from his own zone and maneuvered through the heart of the Sabres defense before beating Ryan Miller over the glove hand. It was a brilliant individual effort that was made all the more impressive by the fact that the score came with just 29 seconds left in overtime and gave the Thrashers a 4-3 victory.
Craig Ramsay deserves a great deal of credit for Byfuglien's success. The Thrashers head coach has shaped his defensive corps around Byfuglien's skill- set, allowing the 25-year-old Minnesotan to be successful while playing his own game. The pairing of Byfuglien with Tobias Enstrom, a small but steady defenseman, has also been an inspired choice.
"What I like the most is that he can move the puck," said Enstrom. "He's a skilled guy, he can skate well, I really enjoy that I can give it to him and I can get it back. It's a big part of our game."
Byfuglien has been a difference maker for the Thrashers this year and, along with goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, is one of the biggest reasons the club enters Wednesday tied for sixth in the Eastern Conference. Finding itself among the playoff seeds in the East at any time during a season is news for Atlanta, which has made the postseason just once since joining the league in the fall of 1999.
The man known as Buff could be Atlanta's ticket back to the playoffs because, especially as a defenseman, he is a one-of-a-kind talent. Plain and simple, there are few teams equipped with the personnel to handle Byfuglien's blend of size, speed and skill.
If Atlanta can ride its special talent to the postseason there is no telling how far the Thrashers could go. After all, in a seven-game series a matchup problem like Byfuglien could be the difference between moving on to the next round and reserving tee times.
Just Wednesday, Byfuglien was named the NHL's Third Star for November. If he continues to keep up the excellent work, both he and the Thrashers could be in line for much more glamorous hardware at the end of the year.