By Stu Hackel
Thrashers GM Rick Dudley is probably not waiting with breathless anticipation, but it appears that Jeremy Roenick owes him an apology.
When the Thrashers announced in training camp that they would play Dustin Byfuglien on defense, there was something of an outcry among fans and observers that this was not the best use of Big Buff’s talents. He’d enjoyed a very impressive playoff performance as a power forward during the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup run, but many wondered why Dudley traded for him if he and coach Craig Ramsay were going to turn Byfuglien into something else.
No one was more outspoken than former Blackhawk Roenick who — in characteristic bombastic fashion — let fly to The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Chris Vivlamore:
“That might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Dustin Byfuglien as a defenseman. I would love to play against Dustin Byfuglien as a defenseman. I would turn him inside out, left, right and center every single time. This kid, he made his living in front of the net scoring goals during the playoffs for the Chicago Blackhawks. Why on earth would you put him back as a defenseman? This kid is strong, he’s powerful, he’s a great skater. Put him in front of the net as a forward. That’s where you want him to do all his damage. Playing him as a defenseman? Maybe that’s why the Thrashers are 0-3 in preseason. Maybe that’s why nobody comes to watch their games. It’s crazy. What are they thinking? They already have a GM that doesn’t know the game whatsoever. But, hey, that’s just my opinion. Like me or hate me if you don’t [agree]. I’m not a big fan of Atlanta for a lot of reasons, but the fact that they’re going to play Dustin Byfuglien [as a defenseman], my goodness gracious.”
Well, that certainly got people’s attention, which is something at which J.R. (his detractors call him P.R.) excels. But he didn’t seem aware that Byfuglien had been drafted as a defenseman by the Hawks and had played the position quite a bit when the need arose due to injury. Buff wasn’t a stranger to the blue line.
Now that we’re about a quarter of the way into the season, let’s see if Dudley and Ramsay were right or if Roenick is the hockey seer he believes himself to be.
Through 21 games, Byfuglien has seven goals and 12 assists, and his 19 points are tied for the second among all defensemen. Who’s first? Nick Lidstrom, whose play at 40 years old continues to amaze, and John-Michael Liles, who Michael Farber writes about today on SI.com. Who’s tied with Byfuglien? Kris Letang, the heir to Sergei Gonchar as quarterback of the Penguins’ power play that features Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Everyone else — Gonchar, Mike Green, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Chris Pronger — lines up behind them. So Buff is in pretty good company, eh?
Byfuglien’s seven goals lead all defensemen, his 12 assists rank sixth, his three PP goals rank second and he’s tied for the league lead among all skaters in game-winning goals (4). The most recent was his OT strike against the Islanders on Sunday and that was his second OT tally of the season, which ties him for the the NHL lead with Devils winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who has nine fewer points than Byfuglien.
As for Roenick’s implication that NHL forwards would be doing the boogaloo around Byfuglien on the rush, well, that’s not happening too much, either. Buff’s not among the plus-minus leaders (he’s rated even), but he’s not a terrible liability back there. If he has a problem, it’s being caught up ice a bit too much, not his mobility in one-on-one situations. And, as Thrashers associate coach John Torchetti points out, all those things are easily teachable. Offensive gifts like rocket-hard shots are harder to teach.
Byfuglien has been paired with the smaller but defensively smart Tobias Enstrom at even strength and on the power play. The two have become a force on the back end. They’ll bring that into an interesting matchup tonight against the Red Wings, a foe Byfuglien knows well from his Blackhawks days. It’ll be one to watch while your prepping your turkey for Thursday.
And speaking of turkeys, Roenick’s prediction certainly looks like one now.
Games to watch: After only one game last night (Phoenx’s 5-0 win over the Oilers), there’s a big schedule tonight with 14 games and then only one again on American Thanskgiving Day.
Besides, Wings-Thrashers, there’s another interesting inter-conference game between the Kings and Canadiens. The Habs blew a 2-0 first period lead in Philly on Monday and were completely outplayed afterward, but still got a great performance out of goalie Carey Price, who has probably been the most consistent goaltender in the NHL so far this season. That’s a welcome departure from the past two years.
The Kings will have Jonathan Bernier in goal, and Quebec-born goalies love to play at the Bell Centre. Coming off a 3-2 loss in Ottawa, the Kings are on game four of their five-game eastern trip and 1-4 over their last five. They’ve had trouble holding leads in those games.
Habs fans are grumbling loudly at the MIA act of Scott Gomez, who is not doing much for his $8 million beside rushing the puck through the neutral zone. Those rushes don’t often result in anything and as Arpon Basu noted on his CTV.ca blog, coach Jacques Martin seems to be as annoyed as the fans.
The Blackhawks continue their annual “Circus Trip” in San Jose as Ringling Bros. take over the United Center until nearly the end of the month. The Hawks could be facing their Stanley Cup goalie Antti Niemi tonight, or maybe not as Sharks coach Todd McLellan wasn’t divulging which goalie, Niemi or Antero Niittymaki, would get the call tonight. Nitty has been better (7-2-3, .919 save percentage, 2.07 GAA) while Nemo has struggled (2-4-1, 3.91 GAA, shaky.878 save pct.).
The Avalanche, winners of four straight, will take on the Canucks, losers of three straight, in Vancouver. The Avs are two points ahead of their hosts in the Northwest Division. Craig Anderson will be in goal for Colorado and Roberto Luongo probably will play for Vancouver. Bobby Lou hasn’t sparkled of late and everyone from the mainstream media to the local bloggers are unhappy.
The Rangers will be in Tampa Bay. The Lightning have won four straight. New York has tried to simplify its game, especially defensively, and will have its hands full with the game’s hottest scorer in Steven Stamkos, who has already hit the 20 goal mark already and has people talking about whether he can score 50 in 50 games, even though it’s a bit early for that subject.
And finally: Tomorrow is Turkey Day here in the U.S. and while there have been lots of turkeys in hockey (you should have seen me in our weekly skate last night), the game’s greatest was Walter “Turk” Broda, the Maple Leafs Hall of Fame goalie from the late 1930s through the early 1950s (with time off for military service during WWII).
Broda supposedly got his nickname when one of his grade school teachers told the class that a certain English King was nicknamed “Turkey Egg” because he had lots of freckles. Broda’s classmates, noticing that he did, too, transplanted the nickname to young Walter.
The other tale of the name’s origins had to do with Broda’s weight, which was always an issue during his playing days. It was said he was as fat as a turkey. He and Leafs manager Conn Smythe constantly bickered over Turk’s waistline.
But it wasn’t so bad that he couldn’t come through when he the situation demanded excellence. Broda led the Leafs to five Stanley Cup championships during his career and many think of him as the greatest “money goalie” of all time. When playoff bonus money was on the line, Broda was no turkey.