Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley told me two weeks ago that he would like to see Dustin Byfuglien move back to defense, his original position. In doing so, he left one caveat. The final decision would be up to new coach Craig Ramsay.
That decision has been made.
Ramsay said Friday that Byfuglien will come to training camp as a defenseman.
“Dustin Byfuglien will have a chance to play defense,” Ramsay said. “I’ve been told he is a defenseman, he was a defenseman. That was his position and he likes it. He wants to be there. I will give him every opportunity to show us he can play defense. If he can do that, wonderful. That’s great. I look at our defense and I think it can be our strength, a strong point. If Buff can go in and be big and strong on defense, that would be awesome. If it doesn’t work, he’ll go up front. There is no reason we wouldn’t give him every good, solid chance to play the position and find out if he can. That would really solidify us on the back end.”
As a forward, Byfuglien scored 17 regular-season goals for Chicago last season. He scored 11 goals in 22 playoff games en route to the Stanley Cup. Byfuglien was traded to Atlanta in the off-season – one of four players from the championship team to join the Thrashers.
Such a move would seemingly set the top six defensemen of Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, Ron Hainsey, Johnny Oduya, Brent Sopel and Byfuglien. That would mean players such as Boris Valabik, Freddy Meyer, Arturs Kulda, Jaime Sifers and Andrey Zubarev are in competition for another spot when training camp begins next week. Ramsay said he doesn’t intend to carry players on the roster that aren’t going to play on a regular basis.
“I think he’s more of a defenseman,” Ramsay continued about Byfuglien, who has not reported early for voluntary workouts after the Stanley Cup winning run. “We already have people we think can play [defense]. That just makes it a little more difficult picking your team on the blue line. Sopel can play. Hainsey can play. Enstrom, Bogosian, Oduya, those guys I know. They can all play. Some of the young kids, just watching them fiddling around [in voluntary workouts], get around the ice very well which is what we want to accomplish from our blue line. We have some pieces already. Rick has created some depth in this organization that we should be in pretty good shape on the blue line. Wouldn’t it be great if you looked at your team and said we are good on the blue line, people can’t pick on us. Get the puck out of your end and start getting up ice.
“We are solid. We are going to be good on the blue line. That’s a huge advantage.”
Ramsay and Dudley both think that Byfuglien is still capable of scoring as a defenseman.
“He can score 15 goals as a defenseman,” Dudley said in August. “He’s got one of the hardest shots in the game.”
The Thrashers finished last season 25th in the NHL in goal-against per game with a 3.05 average. If the Thrashers are to turn around a franchise that has missed the playoffs the past three seasons and made it just once in its 10-year history, it will start on defense, Ramsay said. Ramsay has stated, and did again Friday, that he intends to play a very up-temp game with the defense joining the rush as much as possible.
“We’ve got size, we’ve got quickness,” he added. “I think we can be really good on defense. That’s a pressure position and a huge part of what’s going to turn this team around and make it go forward is the fact that we are going to be able to get the puck, move it up the ice. They are going to join rushes and we are going to get some offense from the blue line. I like the look of it, but you have to get into playing games before you really see how these things work.”
And it will begin with training camp in just a week.