The Great Byfuglien Debate

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.    

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26 Responses to The Great Byfuglien Debate

  1. pat says:

    This is a great write up. I appreciate you taking the time to put this all up and get it out there. Kind of a shame the people who will take the time to read this are already the people who know.

  2. John says:

    The propaganda of the Byfuglien trade has already started to spread. Just trying to nip it all in the bud.

  3. Patrick says:

    Damn good analysis, John, and right on too. How long did this take you?

  4. Scott says:

    Very great history lesson…even though we knew it. great job. Hope he does well in Atlanta as long as he is there. We will be fine. Even if Morin isnt great.

  5. John says:

    Took about a day or so.

  6. Cam says:

    Interestingly, Baker can’t even stay in the Wild lineup he’s been so bad this season.

    Getting Leddy and Morin were coups, in my opinion. Both are going to be big parts of the puzzle.

  7. Cam says:

    Barker, not Baker, obviously.

  8. Otter says:

    I’m not sure the Hawks got fleeced on the Versteeg deal… he’s got 10 goals and 21 points and is -16. He’s barely going to out produce what he did last year even though he’s getting five extra minutes of ice time a night. Stalberg isn’t going to replace all of Versteeg’s production, but he’s not doing poorly. And Paradis is still young, was a first round pick, and is at about a point per game in the QMJHL this year (granted he’s 19).

    So sure, the Hawks got more for Buff, but they should have gotten more for Buff since Buff is a better and more unique talent.

    Other than that… great write up. I thought Buff would be the hardest to let go because he was the most unique player the Hawks traded this summer. We’re going to really miss him in May. And I’m glad he’s playing great for Atlanta.

  9. Otter says:

    That 2004 Draft should have ended after the second pick. There seem to be about six NHL players from that draft… ouch.

  10. Sam says:

    This is a great write-up, however I can’t fathom how a defenseman who doesn’t kill penalties at all will get any Norris consideration. Mike Green has put up silly offensive numbers and barely sniffs a Norris, and he does kill penalties, although not very well.

  11. John says:

    Green has been a finalist, though. Plus, I can’t help but think because he’s less physical, has disappeared in the playoffs, and because he’s Canadian, he’s held to a different standard by the voters than they would hold someone like Byfuglien. I suppose time will tell.

  12. tony says:

    I continue to believe they should have tried to dump Hossa and his salary. They could have kept more players including Niemi and Byfuglien.

  13. Patrick says:

    It’ll be interesting to see what next year brings for Buff – yes, I know he’ll be on D, but who will he be playing for (probably better than 50-50 it’s for Atlanta, but not certain)? If he had a season like this for the Hawks this year, he’s probably not coming back next year (but then again, as John pointed out, he wouldn’t be playing D here, and we all were in agreement in that from the Nashville series). I have to applaud the Hawks in getting what they got when they did, especially in Morin, who I think will be a long-term keeper.

  14. Ross says:

    This is excellent. I’m in your camp as well – mixed feelings on Buff throughout his tenure, sad to see him go but wasn’t jumping off a cliff. I’m glad he’s doing well, and I’m glad the Hawks won’t be the team to pay him $6mill/year.

  15. LMS says:

    I’m glad he’s doing well, and I’m glad the Hawks won’t be the team to pay him $6mill/year. – AMEN

    And he is not worth 6M a year. But hey if someone pays him that, then so be it

  16. CP says:

    Nice article. I’m in the camp of not being that disappointed on seeing Buff go since changes had to be made, and I like the upside Morin seems to have.

    And while not he’s not necessarily a game changer, the player I’m just as disappointed in losing in that deal is Andrew Ladd–he seems to be overlooked a lot in that deal. We lost a good character player there too, and just because Buff is lighting it up on the scoresheet, I’d rather still have Ladd in a Hawk jersey just as much.

  17. John says:

    Ladd was involved in a seperate trade.

  18. John says:

    I agree with everything you said except this:

    “…Brian Campbell broke his collarbone in a collision with Alex Ovechkin.”

    Should read:

    “Brian Campbell broke his collarbone in a collision with the boards after Alex Ovechkin the goon pushed him from behind.”

  19. DGH028 says:

    Nicely written article. Add to the fact that at this season’s end, it’s Seabrooks’ time to ink a long term deal. I’ll take what the Hawks received in return from Atlanta, knowing that in no way could both Big Buff and Marlboro Man be signed to long term deals. I’ll take number 7, thanks.
    I think Stan and Scotty made the correct choice.

    Now the Andrew Ladd deal……..that should be another article John!

  20. mike says:

    buff was great for the hawks, and was vital to winning the cup based on his playoff performance alone. but i always thought his play was so inconsistent during the regular season. but thats just a naked eye assumption and i’m not great with the statistics. i had a feeling he would be moved in the offseason, even though it crushed the fans to see him go.

    as for the guy saying they should’ve moved hossa-
    the hawks are building a franchise. part of this strategy is having a core of players whose names will be around for the life of the franchise. this is part of reengaging their fanbase. guys like kane, toews, hossa and keith- fans will be wearing their jerseys like mikita, hull and savard. no disrespect to buff, but that wasn’t going to happen with him. and if you don’t think hossa has the talent to be in that conversation, i beg to differ.

  21. Mike says:

    Great article. I would definitely include Kris letang and buff’s partner, Toby enstrom in the Norris discussion though.

  22. Mike McBurney says:

    Fantastic article. I’m one of those nucks fans who lost their will to live thanks to the fat bastard. I boldly made the prediction to all that would listen when he went to Atlanta that by the end of the year he would be in the minors and would never amount to anything. Then eight games into the season I noticed he was putting up some points and picked him up in my fantasy pool. I definitely ate my share of crow.

    One thing that I haven’t heard a lot of people consider, maybe it was his time playing up front that allowed him to develop into what he has turned into. I know this sounds obvious, but perhaps the debate about him giving him time to become a better defenceman for the hawks is beside the point. He very well may have been destined to be a mediocre defenseman and something just clicked for him after having some time to develop at both positions.

    It will be interesting to see how things go from him here on in. This proves that he has the ability to be a game changer, but it does not prove that he’s always going to put in the extra effort to do what he needs to. There must have been a tremendous amount of motivation for him after essentially being told that the stanley cup champions think that he’s the most expendable part of their team.

    Thanks again for a great article. As someone who doesn’t follow the hawks closely I found it extremely interesting.

  23. John says:

    Mike, the idea that Byfuglien’s time at forward has made him as good as he is now is definitely something that crossed my mind. I just couldn’t fit it into my article in an eloquent manner so I decided to just scrap it. It’s certainly something I did think about though. Thanks for stopping by.

  24. Dave Morris says:

    A little late to the party here, but “Third Man In” columnist Chris Block spoke very highly of this piece and with good reason….a very well reasoned perspective.

    My view of Buff has been mostly limited to the TV screen, as the only times I’ve seen him ‘live’ were in Montreal and Ottawa, both games the Hawks dropped due to less than sparkling efforts from players like…Big Buff.

    That said, no one can deny in the REALLY big games, ie, the playoffs, Byfuglien terrorized the opposition.

    But the Hawks simply couldn’t afford a $3 Million Buff, no matter how one tries to crunch the numbers (especially seeing as no one could replace Bolland as a premier checking center, which he is, Diamond Dale salary aside), and there we are.

    Watching him as a Thrasher, one notes a few things…

    >Craig Ramsay has built the Thrash attack around Buff’s rushing from the back end.
    >Buff says he likes the attention, and he likes the added confidence in him…he seems to be a big kid who wants to have fun and be appreciated.
    >Byfuglien is *not* a very good defenseman from a defensive point of view, which is why Toby Enstrom, who is a very smart (if small) d-man, is partnered with him.

    Some Hawks fans might miss Buff, but are they the same ones who complained about him being ‘lazy’?

    As the Joe Mantegna character says in the David Mamet movie, “Things change.”

  25. Dan says:

    Great job with the article; you have clearly put some effort into this piece and it was an easy read.

    After reviewing Byfuglien’s stats, his production is indicative of a big bodied bruiser playing the front of the net for the highly skilled players to work their magic (i.e. Toews, Kane, Sharp, Havlat/Hossa). Although it is a poor comparison, look at what Steve Downie did with Stamkos and St. Louis in the ’09-’10 season (22G-24A-46P-208PIMs).

    I agree with a lot of your main points. The argument that the ATL offense is build around Byfuglien is a fair statement. He is the go to guy (although Enstrom, agreed, is a much better all-around defenseman than Byfuglien) and once he is in the offensive zone, he doesn’t have to think like a defenseman, it is still forward-forward-forward.

    I hope I am wrong with the following assessment of Dustin because I did enjoy watching him in the playoffs against the Canucks and he’s from the US hockey hotbed of Minneapolis, MN. I see his production staying on par as young talents like Evander Kane, Anthony Stewart, Bryan Little, Alex Burmistrov, and the sort continue to develop into consistent NHLers. Byfuglien will crack 70P, however I see him suffering from the Bryan McCabe syndrome by ’11-’12. Teams will know to have man-to-man coverage high on the point and Byfuglien will produce at around a 50P pace for the remainder of his time with the talented forwards in ATL. Not that 50P from your 1-2 Defenseman is a bad thing…


  26. Paul Miller says:

    I agree that this was a great article. Very well thought out. I must admit that I was and am troubled by this trade. I will keep it simple. You just do not trade a 26 year old guy that had just dominated in your run to WINNING the cup. People that can raise their level of play when it counts are rare in all sports. You find a way to keep him and don’t get caught up in the meatballs shouting about how lazy he was. This reminds me how former Cub Bill Matlock was run out of Chicago for being lazy. He went on to have an amazing career. Same thoughts, different sport. Please do net tell me about salary cap. Bowman made desisions on who to keep and who to trade. He made some poor decisions.

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