Sunday night, just after blasting the puck through Rick DiPietro to give the Thrashers a 2-1 win over the New York Islanders, Dustin Byfuglien skated over by the glass in front of section 103 in celebration. He turn to display his left arm toward the cheering fans, took his right hand and lifted up the sleeve to display the A-T-L-A-N-T-A that runs down it.
Fans love that stuff, ya know.
Big Buff certainly seems to be happy securing wins for his new city, it’s team and their fans. And he’s also appears to be very, very comfortable with playing the role of Mr. Clutch. As coach Ramsay put it after the win, “He wants to be a difference-maker all the time”.
“That’s the biggest asset a hockey player can have … is to want to be the difference-maker, to want to be the guy, to be the man. He puts his hand up.”
Byfuglien has been putting his hand up a lot this season. The goal he scored 1:30 into overtime, sending the Islander away with the thirteenth consecutive loss, was his seventh so far while his 19 overall points is second only behind captain Andrew Ladd. His three power play goals tie him with Rich Peverley and Anthony Stewart for second on the team, just behind Nik Antropov’s four. And two times the thrashers have won games in overtime…both times the players doing the honors were, you guessed it, Dustin Byfuglien.
Buff not one…not two…no, not three…but four game winning tallies on the season. That’s pretty impressive considering Atlanta has only nine wins so far
Byfuglien’s performance this year is exactly what Thrashers fans had hoped for last summer when GM Rick Dudley made that big trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. Only, many around here had though such ice-ice heroics would come from Buff as a forward…not as a defenseman.
When Dudley leaked the news that the 6-5, 265 lb Byfuglien might be moved back to his natural position on defense, it was met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The Blackhawks had placed Buff on the forward lines a couple years ago to add size up front…an experiment that proved to be a success…and we wanted to see his big frame screening goalies for us too.
“We need that big body up in front of the net”, fans said.
“Put him up front during power plays”, was a common suggestion.
“Our offense looks weak and we need him there to help”, was a frequent lament.
“Buff is a terrible skater and will be a liability back there”, some even warned.
Admittedly, I scratched my head over the thought of having Byfuglien taken off the list of forwards available to the team and placed on the blueline. However, a month and a half into the fall campaign, the wringing of hands about such a move has proven to be unwarranted.
Beginning with Byfuglien’s personal stats…7 goals, 12 assists, and EVEN +/- rating, 2 OT goals and 4 game-winners…it doesn’t appear as though he’s struggling at all back there. And looking at those numbers, I guess it could be said that what Byfuglien has done here is become the Zach Bogosian type of player we had hoped for from…well…from Zach Bogosian.
As far as team numbers are concerned…again, the Thrashers don’t seem to be struggling too much in the wake of Dustin’s move to the D-line. They are potting goals at a 3.05 per game clip, tied with Pittsburgh for seventh best in the NHL, and their power play is a sixth-best 23.5% effective. Also, this offense is getting a lot of good looks at opposing goalkeepers as they are getting off 30.3 shots per game, which is the most since 2005-06 when they took 30.8 S/G.
And while the defensive unit Byfuglien is a part of is giving up an alarming 35.4 shots thus far this season, that number is improving having allowed just 30.6 SA/G. Regardless, Dustin isn’t exactly embarrassing Thrasherville with his play back there.
Giving credit where it’s due… the decision by Dudley and Ramsay to move Byfuglien back to defense has been a success and has proven to be the right one.