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Byfuglien's happy as a clam Add to ...

"Put me in, coach - I'm ready to play…."

John Fogerty

The late, great behaviouralist Erik Erikson would have been fascinated. It might even have thrown all his accepted theories of role confusion and identity for a loop.

This is no Jekyll and Hyde. This is certainly no Sybil. This is Dustin Byfuglien, a man as simple and straightforward as his name is baffling: Try "buff-lynn" …

And yet, consider the twists: Born to a mother of Norwegian heritage and an Afro-American father, raised in the United States but came to Canada to play his sport, drafted as a defenceman, blossomed as a forward, returned to defence.

And happy as a clam.

"I kind of cracked a smile," said the man challenging for the NHL lead in scoring by defence when he was told earlier this summer that he would be changing positions.

As of last night's 5-2 loss to the 8-6-1 Ottawa Senators, Byfuglien now has 14 points on four goals and 10 assists for the 6-6-3 Thrashers, second only among National Hockey League defencemen to Detroit Red Wings Nicklas Lidstrom,six time Norris Trophy winner as the league's top defenceman.

The 25-year-old Byfuglien was a sensation at forward just months ago, a huge, hulking (6 foot 3, 250 pounds give or take 10 or 20) presence on a line with tiny magician Patrick Kane and driving captain Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks. The big right winger's 11 goals in 22 games were considered a major factor in the Hawks winning their first Cup since 1961.

His reward? An early summer trade to Atlanta, along with several other Hawks, as Chicago scrambled to come to terms with the new realities of the salary cap.

Rick Dudley, new general manager of the Thrashers, had been in Chicago when Byfuglien was drafted 245th overall in 2003. Byfuglien had been a defenceman in junior hockey - at times ballooning towards 300 pounds with the Prince George Cougars - and there were serious doubts that he had either the fitness or the drive to play in the NHL.

His stepfather, Dale Smedsmo, who once played four games for the Toronto Maple Leafs, used to have so much trouble merely waking the big kid up to go to work that he once threw away the youngster's cellphone - to no avail.

None of this ever bothered Byfuglien. He was often first to joke about his work ethic; but slowly, year by year, he improved until last season he became a playoff sensation that many wrongly took to mean he was merely a good screen for the work of Kane and Toews.

Dudley told him he could return to defence - more ice time, his preferred position - if he showed up in shape, and he did.

"It didn't make a difference to me," Atlanta head coach Craig Ramsay says.

Ramsay's thinking was they'd give him "that opportunity, then we'll re-evaluate - but that re-evaluation process went fairly quickly."

"I didn't really know what I wanted, to be a forward or a D man," Byfuglien says. "Either way it didn't really matter to me, as long as I was playing.

"It's a change. Some guys can do it, some can't."

Ramsay, who is also new, says the team's rejuvenation has been greatly helped by the Stanley Cup experience brought along by the four former Blackhawks on the Thrashers: Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd (who shares the team scoring lead with the big defenceman), Brent Sopel and Ben Eager.

"Everybody wants to win that Cup now that they're with some people who've done it," Ramsay says.

"We're trying to win, We started training camp with the mantra Expect to Win - and that's not just going out trying to survive, but actually with the mindset that you can win. Doesn't matter who we play, or where we play, we have to go out and try to win - and we've done that."

And a big factor in that change has been Byfuglien: "You can't ask for more enthusiasm than he brings."

As for Byfuglien himself, all he says is "I'm going out there, having fun."

"Put me in, coach - I'm ready to play …"

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG


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