Before last year, then-GM Dale Tallon gave Dustin Byfuglien a three-year, $9 million contract that raised a few eyebrows. At that point, Byfuglien was a big defenseman who was trying to transition to a forward position and was experiencing some growing pains as he did so.
As the 2008-09 season progressed, there were times that Byfuglien certainly made stupid mistakes and was caught out of position, but he gradually showed learning curve that was at least encouraging for fans.
Then, around the middle of March last year, the lights went on. Suddenly Byfuglien went from the hardest last name to spell on the team (pre-Hjalmarsson) to “Big Buff,” the fan favorite who posts up better than anyone on the Bulls. Byfuglien figured out how to stick his 6’3, 245 pound body in front of the net, and he became a great weapon for the Hawks as they pushed into the playoffs.
In the playoffs, Byfuglien continues his strong play. He was physical, almost always in the right place, and his screening body still haunts fans in Calgary and Vancouver.
Buff was emerging as a young star, worthy of the money Tallon gave him.
When the Blackhawks added Marian Hossa to the mix this summer, the fans instantly started playing fantasy hockey in their minds, trying to figure out how coach Joel Quenneville was going to get all the talented players on the Hawks on the ice, and who would work best with who as the season moved along. One of the players that could have gone anywhere was Byfuglien.
In a move that shows not only confidence in Byfuglien but also respect for the promise he’s shown with his steady development, Quenneville has been skating him on the same line as superstar Patrick Kane and, before Jonathan Toews got hurt, Dave Bolland. Bolland and Kane are two of the marquee offensive players on the roster, so it says volumes about Byfuglien’s equity with his coach that he would be placed with them.
Byfuglien has backed up his coach’s confidence so far this season, already scoring seven point (two goals, five assists). He’s continued to play big, physical, strong hockey and his development continues to show his contract, one that was blasted by many, was great foresight from Tallon.
But a disturbing trend has started to present an issue that could become a problem with Byfuglien. Starting in the Vancouver game, Byfuglien’s temper and self control have appeared to be out of control and have cost the Blackhawks in a number of crucial situations.
In the Vancouver game, Buff took two stupid penalties. With only 32 seconds left in the first period, Buff decided to light up Henrik Sedin and drew a two-minute minor for roughing. Just 42 seconds into the second period, with Byfuglien in the box, Steve Bernier scored Vancouver’s first goal.
Three minutes after Toews went down in the third, in a game the Blackhawks were still winning, Byfuglien took a shot at Kevin Bieksa and drew a four minute double-minor for high sticking. For the second time in the game, the Canucks scored while Byfuglien was in the penalty box.
In the next game against Nashville, Byfuglien certainly did his part by scoring one of the two Blackhawks goals in a 2-0 win. But he again drew two stupid penalties, the first for interference and the second for hooking with 2:06 left in the game. The Hawks had already put the Predators away in the game, so the hooking penalty was not only dumb but also unnecessary.
My concern grew when, with just six seconds left in the game, Byfuglien left the box, skated up the ice, and laid out a Nashville player as time expired. All the players on the ice got together, of course, and eventually they got done singing Kumbaya and the Hawks celebrated a shut out from Cristobal Huet. But, with Toews out, the Hawks cannot afford to lose Byfuglien to a suspension or game misconduct for taking a shot in the closing seconds of a game they had already won. And he got dangerously close with this cheap shot.
Byfuglien contributed 14 good shifts against Minnesota, putting four shots on goal but not scoring in the Hawks 3-1 win. But again on Thursday night, there were areas of concern with Byfuglien. I don’t have an issue with Byfuglien’s first period hooking penalty because it was a questionable call. It was his actions at the end of the game that concern me.
At the end of regulation, with the Hawks on the power play, it appeared that Patrick Kane’s stick was slashed as he wound up for a one-timer. There was no call. The Hawks collectively lost their composure when no penalty was called, and Jerred Smithson took advantage by skating the other way and filling the empty net with the Preds’ second goal of the night.
But while players like Kane simply raised their hands in disgust when the slash wasn’t called, apparently Byfuglien opted for stronger language than his teammates. Byfuglien was called for both a two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct and a 10-minute misconduct penalties for his actions with only four seconds left in the loss.
Again, in the absence of Toews, the Blackhawks cannot afford to take stupid penalties. Did any of Byfuglien’s 14 penalty minutes change the outcome Thursday night? No. But is there cause for concern in the apparently shrinking temper of one of the Hawks good young players? Absolutely.
As the Blackhawks get their entire roster healthy, with Toews and Hossa both expected to be back at some point in the next couple weeks, the lines are going to be adjusted for the best players to be in position to be effective. Byfuglien absolutely has a role in the Hawks future, and will be one of those players that Quenneville will have a tough decision pairing on line.
But if Byfuglien continues putting his teammates at a disadvantage on the ice, it will become increasingly harder for Quenneville to skate him on a line with players like Bolland and Kane. It is in Byfuglien’s best interests, and the hopes of the Hawks, for him to get his act together and play better hockey without the dumb penalties.
Byfuglien’s bulk and skill have become a big part of the Hawks’ offense, not they need his brain to play a part as well.