Before I get into specifics, I feel like I should explain why I’m probably the best person to tackle this subject.
I never fell head-over-heels in love with Dustin Byfuglien. I always thought he was an incredibly effective player when the time called for him to be. I could live with his occasional scoring droughts; I could live with the occasional pass flying off the blade of his stick, as long as he brought what was needed in the playoffs. And because of that, I was never really disappointed in him.
I’m not like Barry Rozner who now bemoans the loss of a great defenseman the Hawks never knew they had. We all saw what Byfuglien was as a defenseman and if anyone said last year during the Nashville series, “Boy, this Byfuglien guy, I bet next year he’s going to be a point per game defenseman.” you probably would have looked at them like they just clubbed a baby Golden Seal to death. Besides, Byfuglien is going to make Brian Campbell money very soon so the argument they could’ve had him instead of Campbell doesn’t really carry any weight.
Nor am I like this growing contingent of Hawk fans who refuse to give Byfuglien any credit whatsoever. Just admit it, he isn’t the anti-Christ so many painted him to be. Somehow and at some point (I’m guessing around the time Quenneville scratched him a couple times in ’08-09), he got slapped with a scarlet “L”. Yet if you look at the stats, Byfuglien was first or second on the team in nearly all ‘effort’ stats. It’s not hard. In fact, you might feel better if you lift the burden off your chest. Say it with me, “He’s pretty good at hockey.”
Nor am I like my partner in crime, Bobby, who since upon hearing about his trade, has since been constructing a life-size statue of Dustin Byfuglien made from mashed potatoes in his extra bedroom.
I’m slap-drab right in the middle with little emotion attached to how I feel about him.
Looking back to right after the Hawks won the Cup, I thought the two guys who made the most sense to trade (of the fringe ‘core’ group) were Dustin Byfuglien and Dave Bolland because, to me, this was very likely the highest their perceived value would ever be. Clearly, I was wrong on one count.
The Hawks, to their credit, took advantage by receiving a legitimate package for Byfuglien (as opposed to the poo-poo platter they got for Versteeg. I like Stalberg and all, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t an untouchable). Jeremy Morin is going to be a perennial 20 goal scorer, should he stay healthy. Whether or not the Hawks used the two draft picks they received wisely remains to be seen.
What you can’t say is the Hawks sold low on Byfuglien. No one, other than Rick Dudley and apparently Barry Rozner, saw him as anything more than a number 3 or 4 defensemen, let alone a Norris Trophy candidate. So credit should go to Dudley for not listening to everyone (literally everyone) telling him he was insane and sticking with his gut.
As for Byfuglien being a Norris Trophy candidate, you better believe he is. Right now, there’s Niklas Lidstrom, Dustin Byfuglien, and that’s about it. Duncan Keith won’t get consideration until his +/- is on the plus side. Drew Doughty hasn’t scored nearly enough. Shea Weber is a possibility, though he struggled without Ryan Suter and plenty of people were paying attention to that.
The only thing that may keep Byfuglien off the list of finalists (assuming he doesn’t tank the rest of the season) is the voting hockey writers generally like to see a defenseman produce for more than one year before making them a finalist. If you remember, Keith wasn’t a finalist after his stellar ’08-09 season because he was still a ‘newcomer’. But if Byfuglien eclipses 70 points, that’s going to be very hard to justify.
So who deserves the blame in the Hawks for this oversight of fairly large proportions?
It’s not really one person and when we get down to the specifics, it’s hard to really find them for any kind of fault.
Flashback to the beginning of the 2007-2008 season. Not counting the great Andrei Zyuzin and Magnus Johansson, the Hawks relied on a defensive rotation of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jim Vandermeer, and Brent Sopel. Vandermeer was traded 20 games into the season for Ben Eager to open up a spot on defense. It took 18 games to realize Magnus Johansson wasn’t very good at hockey. It took a little longer for Andrei Zyuzin as he played in 32 games.
Filling in those three spots were Cam Barker, James Wisniewski, and Dustin Byfuglien.
Barker was the 3rd overall pick of the draft. He was given every opportunity to succeed. At that point, he was a mere 20 years old and had an incredibly bright future.
James Wisniewski was still a cannonball who hadn’t destroyed every ligament in his body.
Dustin Byfuglien was an enormous body and still extremely raw. He had a booming shot, but had poor footwork in his own zone.
Down in Rockford was Niklas Hjalmarsson. No one in Chicago would have heard of him at that point but Dale Tallon clearly knew what he had in him. Needless to say, the Hawks were sufficiently stacked on the back end with defensive prospects.
Meanwhile, on the offensive side, the Hawks were relatively light in the beef department. They had Rene Bourque who was never properly coached here and wasn’t nowhere near the 30-goal scorer he is now. There was also Tuomo Ruutu who was doomed in Chicago the moment former general manager Mike Smith compared him to Peter Forsberg. It also didn’t help matters that Ruutu couldn’t stay in one piece for longer than a month. And that was it.
In Byfuglien, Tallon very likely saw the Dustin Penner-type. A power forward who could single-handedly swing the pendulum of a playoff series. It also didn’t hurt that that was exactly the type of player Tallon had been desperately searching for since he took over as general manager. When you factor that into how many defensemen in waiting the Hawks were boasting, the decision doesn’t look all that crazy.
(Perhaps another reason, and one that is never mentioned, why Dale Tallon decided to make the decision to move Byfuglien to forward was because how scarred he was of his biggest mistake as GM up until that point. Coming out of the lockout, Tallon did a subpar job of anticipating how much the rule changes would affect the game. Two of his bigger free-agent signings were Adrian Aucoin and Jassen Cullimore- two big, lumbering defensemen with heavy shots. Who does that sound like?)
So after Byfuglien’s 37th game of the ’07-08 season, the decision was made to move him to forward. The results were mixed. Some games Byfuglien looked a legit power forward and some games he looked like a defenseman learning to play forward on the fly.
On defense, Hjalmarsson was called up at the end of the season and played well enough to lock in a spot on the ’08-09 opening night roster before he bruised his spleen in the opening game versus the Rangers.
Cam Barker (his cap hit notwithstanding) and James Wisniewski both played well enough to warrant spots on the team. Wisniewski, especially, appeared well on his way to solidifying himself on the Blackhawks top 4. Unfortunately, his own stupidity got in the way. At the end of the game on December 26th against Nashville that the Hawks won easily 5-2, Wisniewski got his knee tangled up in a fight against Jordin Tootoo. Wisniewski twisted up his knee before dropping the gloves causing the intial damage, then proceeded to fight Tootoo which made his injury even worse. He was out of action for a month and his Blackhawk career was never quite the same after that.
Following the 2007-2008 season, the Hawks parted ways with Rene Bourque (traded to Calgary for a 2nd round pick) and Tuomo Ruutu (he was traded at the deadline that season for Andrew Ladd). Troy Brouwer was still considered a project. Ben Eager was still considered a ‘fighter’. Naturally, the Hawks paved the way for Byfuglien to become the Hawks power forward.
Adding to that, the Hawks used the opening day of free agency to make their biggest splash in years by inking Brian Campbell to a 7-year, nearly $56 million dollar contract, the richest in franchise history at the time. In Campbell, the Hawks had a player they sorely missed the year before. While all their young defensemen were still learning on the job, Campbell was a finished product. He was a one-man breakout who brought with him the experience of what it takes to be a successful power play unit (something the Hawks hadn’t had since the first George Bush administration) as well as a team.
By now, the door for Byfuglien’s defensive career in Chicago was almost completely closed.
After the fourth game of the ’08-09 season, the Hawks famously parted ways with Denis Savard. It has been since rumored that the Hawks were on their way to firing Savard in the summer and replacing him with Quenneville until Quenneville was arrested that summer in Colorado for a DUI. Fearing of a bigger public outcry, the Hawks decided to bring Quenneville on as a scout and wait to fire Savard until his first stumble.
So in came Joel Quenneville.
While Dale Tallon was still the GM at the time, his power within the organization had clearly been stripped. Therefore, whatever personnel decisions had been made prior to that season were once again brought into debate. If Quenneville thought Dustin Byfuglien should have been playing defense, it wouldn’t have taken more than a couple practices and games for him to pull the trigger on a move like that.
That never came.
Quenneville liked what he saw in Byfuglien the forward as opposed to Byfuglien the defenseman and the decision to keep him up front was now approved by a second administration.
And it’s not like Quenneville didn’t have the opportunity to see what Byfuglien could do on defense. When he took over, the Hawks had Keith, Seabrook, and Campbell as the team’s only dependable defensemen. Brent Sopel opened up the season hurt and only got worse from there. Matt Walker was just rounding into form as the Hawks 4th defensemen for the majority of the year. Cam Barker was still in Rockford, thanks to cap constraints, James Wisniewski was out with an injury, and the immortal Aaron Johnson was seeing big minutes on the defensive end.
On the offensive side, the Hawks were stacked. Kris Versteeg was a very pleasant surprise. Martin Havlat was living in the glory of being unshackled from Denis Savard’s death grip. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were 2nd year stars. It was the deepest set of forwards the Hawks had for quite some time. Certainly with all the shuffling and question marks on the Hawks back end, they could have very easily plucked a forward capable of playing defense. Yet, Byfuglien remained at forward the entirety of the season, logging most of his time on the 2nd line.
The only time Byfuglien saw any extended time on the defensive side with Joel Quenneville at the helm came at the end of the 2009-2010 season after Brian Campbell broke his collarbone in a collision with Alex Ovechkin. He finished the final 13 games of the regular season on the back end, scoring a goal while notching 5 assists and was a +1. He opened the Nashville series on defense where he was a -3 in three games. By game four, Brian Campbell had returned and Byfuglien moved back to forward where he was a non-factor on the 4th line the final four games.
All of this and we still haven’t taken into account that in his two and a half seasons, Dustin Byfuglien was a pretty damn good power forward. He very likely would have potted 20 goals last season had he not spent the final 13 games on defense. He single-handedly destoryed the will of the entire city of Vancouver….twice. He played an enormous part of closing out the Stanley Cup victory with 3 goals and 2 assists in the final two games of the series. All from a guy who never played forward until he was 22 years old.
In hindsight, it’s very easy to say the Hawks let a stellar defensemen out of their grip. And it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. You could ask why were Cam Barker, James Wisniewski, and Niklas Hjalmarsson afforded every opportunity to succeed while Byfuglien was passed over. Why were journeymen players like Matt Walker or Andrei Zyuzin given minutes on the back-end when they very easily could have gone to a developing Byfuglien?
(The question of why Brian Campbell was signed, however, is not up for debate. The Hawks desperately needed a puck-moving defensemen and they also needed to strike while the iron was hot. At that point, the Hawks had missed the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 years. Generations of scarred fans were just starting to show up to the United Center again. The last thing any of them wanted to hear was the Hawks were planning on developing their own puck-moving defensemen, rather than signing the expensive guy. It would have been a real easy way to toss out all the goodwill Rocky Wirtz had earned up until that point. Besides, if the Hawks were deadset on developing their own talent, it still would have been Cam Barker, not Dustin Byfuglien.)
In the end, the answer is pretty simple. The Hawks knew Byfuglien had the potential to be a true difference-maker up front. And that pretty Stanley Cup banner hanging from the rafters shows they weren’t really wrong, either.