Dustin Byfuglien was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2003 while playing defence for the Prince George Cougars of the WHL. And on defence was where his NHL career started. After two years as a pro, 34 NHL games and 116 AHL games, Byfuglien started year three with Rockford, but was now a forward. The 'Hawks needed some size up front and Byfuglien could fill that void. His next call to the NHL came in early November of the 2007-08 season and he has stayed in the big league ever since. He scored on his first shift and later that month added his first career hat-trick. He was a huge contributor in the 2010 playoffs as the 'Hawks won the Stanley Cup. Cap issues forced the Hawks to make some moves and Byfuglien was moved to Atlanta.
Rick Dudley was the general manager with the Thrashers and Byfuglien the option on where he'd play.
"I said D," Byfuglien explained. "Perfect, that’s what I wanted.”
One year in Atlanta and the franchise moved to Winnipeg.
Byfuglien remained a blueliner until January of 2014. The Jets had lost four in a row and then coach Claude Noel moved Byfuglien up front. For the first time all season, Byfuglien saw his ice time drop below 20 minutes. The Jets lost the game and Paul Maurice was behind the Jets' bench for the next game, but Byfuglien remained a forward. At training camp, Maurice continued to use Byfuglien as a forward, on the point on the power play, and on the blue line in four-on-four situations, including overtime. The idea was the get Byfuglien as much ice time as possible, but depending on special teams, the ice time would fluctuate from a low of 13:28 to a high of 23:17.
Then came the injuries to the back end. First Toby Enstrom, then Grant Clitsome. Ben Chairot was summoned from St. John’s and the Jets' D pairings against Edmonton on December 3 were Stuart/Trouba, Chairot/Bogosian and Pardy/Postma. Late in the game, Zach Bogosian blocked a shot and he was done. Three of the Jets' top six D were now on the shelf.
So on December 4, Byfuglien came in for practice and found a red defenceman jersey hanging in his stall. Byfuglien accepted the fact the team needed him to play up front, but his preference is and always will be, to play defence. The easiest move for Maurice was to leave the rest of the pairings the same and put Byfuglien with Chairot. The pairings stayed that way for five games. Out went Mark Stuart and the next game Jacob Trouba was put on IR. Clitsome had returned, but still leaving the Jets minus their top-four defencemen. Byfuglien’s ice time jumped to the high 20s and he quickly became a dominant NHL defenceman. After fifteen games on defence, he was selected to the All-Star team as a defenceman and played so well in the next five games, he was named the NHL's First Star of the Week on January 19. This is Byfuglien’s third All-Star selection, although he missed the 2012 All-Star Game because of injury.
In 26 games as a forward, Byfuglien had five goals and six assists. In 22 games as a defenceman, he tallied seven goals and 13 goals. The list of players that have seen Byfuglien’s physical side up close includes Tyson Barrie, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Francois Beauchemin, Corey Perry and Jason Spezza.
This from Maurice – “Byfuglien has been a critical element in us surviving all the injuries. He is playing with a lot of confidence. Playing at a really high level – big minutes, providing offense. Never a doubt he’s a special player.”
If Byfuglien was a run-and-gun defenceman last year, that's not the case now. He's right into the defence-first system.
His former Chicago teammate, Jets captain Andrew Ladd referred to #33 as “extraordinary." Ladd has had a front-row seat for most of Byfuglien’s career.
“I played junior against him," Ladd said. "He was a dominant offensive force. A defenceman that could control the game, a game breaker.”
Ladd remembers the postseason as the time Byfuglien truly broke out in Chicago.
“He had some early success, but with the depth on D it meant he would have only played 10 to 15 minutes a night, so (Blackhawks coach) Joel Quennville had the luxury of shifting him and getting him out there 18 to 20," Ladd explained. "We had skilled guys that could get him the puck and he had an immediate impact up front. When he really took off was in the playoffs. The Vancouver series stands out most about how dominant he could be as a forward. He was our best player in the series.”
In separate deals, both then moved to Atlanta where Byfuglien resumed his career as a defenceman. Ladd was impressed, but not surprised.
“On D you have a player that is going to play 30 minutes," said Ladd. "Any time you can get a player with his puck skills out for another 12 minutes, it’s to your benefit. And he had a great year. He led D-men in goals (20). Then, we came here and because we were all thinking offence is probably what got him moved back up front. Then, with all the injuries this year, he was the perfect guy to throw back there. He controls the puck and physically there is not a more dominant player in the NHL.”
“He is the leader back there," said Blake Wheeler of Byfuglien. "He's so instrumental in our success. His best asset is the way he thinks the game and sees the ice. He’s special. Unlike anyone.”
Wheeler also feels Byfuglien is now being appreciated for his efforts. Wheeler made the reference of a puppy looking for love, but that continuously gets snubbed.
“When you don’t get it, it can wear on you," said Wheeler. "He now feels what he does is impactful. He feels appreciated.”
“He talks a lot out there,” said Chairot when asked about Byfuglien. “He has been a real calming influence for me.”
As for the big man himself, he does far more talking on the ice than he does in media scrums.
“No doubt I’m playing better defence, but the whole team is," said Byfuglien. "I enjoy being back there.”
He actually was told after the game against Edmonton (when the severity of the Bogosian injury was confirmed) that he was going back.
“I’d been hinting all year about going back, now it was happening," he said. "There was a quick conversation with [Maurice] about guidelines.”
On December 4, after his first practice on the back end, he was asked about the adjustment.
“Just like getting out of my king size bed, putting on my slippers,” he said.
Byfuglien truly enjoys being a defenceman - why?
“I control the game. That’s my playground. Simple.”