With the quick signing of his name last summer, Dustin Byfuglien went from an unheralded, underrated power player to an overpaid, lazy defenseman-turned-forward who couldn’t catch a pass. I guess that’s what $3 million per season can do to an NHL player in the salary cap era.
Eleven games into the season, playing mostly as a top-six forward, Byfuglien notched only one goal and two assists amid the shouts for his hide. During that time, Byfuglien showed an inability to play with skilled forwards and against top defensemen. Buff had difficulties supporting teammates on odd-man rushes and was consistently unable to use his size and strength to his advantage.
During a season “Big Buff” played on each of the four lines, ironically, his best production of the campaign came as a bottom-six forward rather than as a contributor on the top two lines.
It wasn’t until the Blackhawks got healthy and Joel Quenneville used Byfuglien as a “grinder” that Buff started to turn his season around. The bad news: the $3 million per season forward showed himself to be unable to positively contribute to a top line. The man from Minnesota lacked the skating ability and stick play to do so. The good news: when pitted against lesser skilled opponents, Byfuglien – oddly enough – used his relative speed and skill to make a positive difference. Along the way, he simplified his game, used his size and strength, and became one of the Hawks’ most valuable players.
During the playoffs, thanks to a dominant series against Roberto Luongo and the Canucks, Byfuglien became a household name in hockey homes. Byfuglien’s willingness to crash the net and contribute to big goals did much to quiet the angry masses who shouted for his scalp during the regular season.
But, will it hold up?
Byfuglien’s ’09-’10 season will be a success if…
He continues to use his size as his best asset. During much of the ’08-’09 campaign, Byfuglien tried to skate with the likes of Patrick Kane, Kris Versteeg and Jonathan Toews; it didn’t work. Byfuglien’s success came when he stepped out on to the ice with Ben Eager’s game plan: separate opponents from the puck and get to the net with authority. It paid off in spades during the playoffs when Byfuglien became one of the most valuable Hawks.
He is not asked to be a defenseman. Sure, the temptation to relocate the converted defenseman may be great. The Hawks have too many forwards and a lack of large defensemen; it may just be too much to overlook. But, for a player who looked equally as lost as a defenseman and downright dominant late last season as a winger, here’s hoping Q let’s Byfuglien do what he does best: disrupt in the offensive zone.
Byfuglien’s ’09-’10 will not be a success if…
He, ya know, doesn’t try. It stands to reason Quenneville will attempt to use Buff in a role that will be similar to the one he ended last year in, but Buff Daddy needs to approach each game as though it is the playoffs. It’s what “grinders” like Ben Eager and Adam Burish do; they’re just not successful otherwise. Yes, Buff may not be the 50-goal scorer some initially thought he could be, but he could be every bit as important scoring 20 if he understands his role.
He’s asked to play with top forwards in even strength situations. See above.