Dudley Believes Byfuglien Can Star at Forward or 'D' for Thrashers
Funny thing about Rick Dudley's biggest acquisition of his offseason makeover of the Atlanta Thrashers -- the general manager is not sure what position he's going to play.
The big addition in question -- literally and figuratively -- is Dustin Byfuglien, the 6-3, 250-pound Stanley Cup hero the Chicago Blackhawks traded to the Thrashers. Dudley, a former executive with the Blackhawks before joining Atlanta's management a year ago, was more than happy to be there for his old team.
"Buff is one of the most unique talents in the game," Dudley said in a wide-ranging interview with NHL FanHouse. "He's 250-plus, with great skill and size. He can play with finesse or he can show you his nasty streak. When we had the chance to bring him to Atlanta, I didn't have to think twice."
Make no mistake, Dudley paid a price. Chicago general manager Stan Bowman may have been in contract-unload mode because mistakes of the past put the Stanley Cup champs over the salary cap, but he was not about to give Byfuglien away. On June 24, Bowman and Dudley finalized a blockbuster: Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel to Atlanta for a first-round pick, a second-round pick, Marty Reasoner, Joey Crabb and Jeremy Morin.
While showing proper respect to the veteran depth players on both ends the deal, Dudley essentially paid first- and second-round picks, plus a solid scoring prospect in Morin, for Byfuglien. Bowman did well; most observers didn't believe he could get a first-rounder for the dynamic but inconsistent Byfuglien. On the other hand, Dudley was ecstatic. Now all the Thrashers have to do is decide whether they want to utilize Byfuglien as a forward or a defenseman.
"If you play Buff up front, you have one of the best power forwards in the league," said Dudley. "But in my view -- and I understand maybe not everyone shares it -- if we play him on one of our top 'D' pairs, he can also be one of the most dominating defensemen around. You saw how he played when the Blackhawks needed him on defense last season. Dustin's only 25 years old. Coming off that performance in the playoffs, he's only scratching the surface of what he is capable of."
The best of Byfuglien was on display in the spring, when he joined forces with young Chicago stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on the top line of the Stanley Cup champions. In 22 playoff games, Byfuglien scored 11 goals -- tied with Kane for the team lead. Five of Byfuglien's 11 goals were playoff game-winners. When the Blackhawks faced the Philadelphia Flyers in the Cup Final, the No. 1 storyline was Big Buff battling defenseman Chris Pronger in the crease.
Earlier in the season, the Minnesota native logged major minutes on the blueline when the Blackhawks endured an injury crisis -- including the loss of top-four defenseman Brian Campbell. Byfuglien played some of the best hockey of an otherwise inconsistent season in which he scored 17 goals. He looked re-energized playing defense, a position the big man loves to play.
Wouldn't it be something if the Thrashers turned Byfuglien into their version of Pronger? According to Dudley, the general manager will leave the decision up to his good friend, first-year Thrashers head coach Craig Ramsay.
"Even in unique cases like Dustin's, I'm a big believer in getting your coach the players and letting him make the on-ice decisions," said Dudley, who made Ramsay the fifth coach in Thrashers history just a few hours after completing the impact deal with Chicago. "Ultimately, the decision is going to be up to Craig. I know Dustin loves to play defense, but he also knows what he's capable of up front with all his heroics helping lead the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup."
No matter what position Byfuglien plays, Dudley has high expectations for his top acquisition in an offseason with plenty of them.
"I spoke with Dustin just a few days ago," said Dudley, who played for the Cincinnati Stingers of the WHA with Byfuglien's stepfather, Dale Smedsmo. "He knows what I think of his talents. I told Dustin that, regardless of the role he has in our lineup, I expect him to lead our team."
(NEXT: Dudley on the selection of Alex Burmistrov with the eighth overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft).