Thursday March 25th, 2010

Because necessity truly is the mother of invention, the Chicago Blackhawks are fortunate to have one big mother.

How big is Dustin Byfuglien? Well, he's 6'-4" and often listed at just under 250 pounds. He answers to 255 or 257, which is down from the 275 at which he once roamed the rink.

Big Buff, as he is familiarly known in Chicago, currently plays the right side on the second Blackhawks defense pair with Niklas Hjalmarsson in what more correctly is a case of necessity being the mother of reinvention.

Byfuglien always had been a defenseman, at least until former Blackhawks coach Denis Savard grew intrigued with the potential of a bulky and surprisingly swift player crowding the net and causing traffic jams in the high-density areas of the ice. Overnight, Byfuglien became a right winger, often a relatively effective one. His decent 2009 playoffs -- nine points in 17 games -- earned him an invitation to Team USA's orientation camp last August, even if his fleshy physique didn't win him any converts among Olympic management.

Anyway, the Blackhawks found themselves a little short on the back end, what with hits on their defensemen filling NHL vice-president Colin Campbell's docket. Alex Ovechkin's shove on Brian Campbell earned him a two-game suspension, but Campbell's broken clavicle isn't going to heal for another seven or so weeks. Then Brent Seabrook was separated from his senses by a high hit from Anaheim's James Wisniewski. An eight-game suspension resulted even though Seabrook made it back on Tuesday against Phoenix. Kim Johnsson already had been out with what is called an upper-body injury.

Missing three of his top six defenseman, coach Joel Quenneville reinserted Byfuglien on defense while calling up Nick Boynton from the minors. Maybe the Big Buff experiment will eventually backfire -- Byfuglien is not an especially savvy one-on-one defender -- but mostly he has looked fine in his first few games. Other than an egregious defensive zone giveaway late against the Coyotes, Byfuglien's work has been commendable.

"A nice little discovery, although he's been discovered before on the back end," Quenneville said prior to the Phoenix game. "But I really like the way he has some poise, some patience with the puck. His defensive zone coverage is something we're going to have to work our way around. I like his size, his shot. His gap (control) is not bad. (He has a) decent stick."

The homecoming has been relatively smooth. When asked if playing defense is like riding a bicycle, Byfuglien replied, "I guess in a way it is. But when you haven't ridden a bicycle in a little while, you feel a little wobbly in the beginning. (But) it doesn't take too long before you feel comfortable again and just let it go. The big thing was trying to remember what guys do. Who's who and everything. The timing definitely was a little different."

Of course, the timing on Seabrook's return also was fortuitous. He slipped back into the top pair with Duncan Keith and showed no hesitation in the wake of the Wisniewski hit, crunching the Coyotes'' Vernon Fiddler into the boards and merrily participating in scrums.

That answered the first question about Seabrook.

The second question, yet unresolved, is: how will his Olympic experience affect him?

For most players, questions about the Olympics flick at the issue of fatigue. That was not Seabrook's case. After one period in the opener against Norway, the Team Canada coaches basically dropped Seabrook into the role of seventh defenseman and promoted Drew Doughty, who was sensational. But the judgment seemed hasty if ultimately prescient. In the gold medal game, Seabrook rarely saw the ice and looked out of sync when Team Canada assistant Lindy Ruff did send him over the boards.

"Duncan and Brent might have been expecting to play a little bit more than they did (together)," said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, among the best forwards at the tournament. "It's tough for anyone who goes there expecting to play, and you don't get the opportunities you're used to getting. He handled it the best he could. So I would say it's not a huge problem. There are so many high-profile defensemen across the league that would have loved to be in that situation. He's a team player and a team guy."

"When you play for Team Canada ... it's just an honor to be on that team and in the locker room with those guys," says Seabrook, cruising the high road. "I was very happy with any role I was put into. I loved the experience. I loved being there. (As for being the seventh defenseman), I would think it would make you work harder, if anything. Prove that you can play."

Because Anaheim general manager Bob Murray suggested that Quenneville stop trying to run the NHL during their contretemps about the Wisniewski suspension, this question was asked of the Chicago coach: "Okay, commish, how would you handle supplementary discipline for the league?"

Quenneville's answer: "(The length of suspension) shouldn't be so discretionary as far as the criteria. (First you decide) what's a suspendable hit. Define that. Once you've got that, you know that this particular hit is of that variety -- five games or 10 games, six and 12, four and eight. The (NHL) already is under so much scrutiny for what is a suspendable offense. Then they put themselves into such a predicament for what is the (correct) number of games. If they could define all that, it would make it easier on themselves."

Vancouver's Ryan Kesler is one of the most disliked players around the league, which is a good thing in hockey. Kesler is a brilliant irritant that never will be a high-end goal scorer, but he still produces points -- 22 goals and 68 points through 74 games -- and pushes buttons. He is a perfect No. 2 center behind NHL-leading scorer Henrik Sedin, which is why GM Mike Gillis re-upped Kesler for another six years at $5 million per. Given the potential marquee free agents at that position this summer, Kesler, who had a strong Olympics for Team USA, is far better option than Tomas Plekanec and certainly a cheaper one than Patrick Marleau, now playing the wing in San Jose.

"Kesler is one of those players who has an impact at the most important times of games," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett says. "Big moments, he's always helping determine the outcome of games. Then you throw in what he has been doing offensively and where he fits on that team, it's great for them that they locked him up."

There have been several analogies to explain the Coyotes stunning season. (On the Fly had them ranked 30th in the NHL at the start of 2009-10, only because the league doesn't have a 31st team.) Of course, we like the Washington Senators in Damn Yankees -- some soul had to have been peddled to the devil for Phoenix to be challenging for first place in the Western Conference -- as well as the Charlestown Chiefs of the Federal League in beloved Slap Shot, a team on the brink of being sold.

Those are fiction. There is a comparable, however, in fact: the 1995-96 Florida Panthers. (Minus the rats.)

The Panthers shocked talented Pittsburgh in the semis and reached the Stanley Cup Final before being swept by Colorado. The similarities include terrific goaltending (John Vanbiesbrouck then; Ilya Bryzgalov now) and the lineups that weren't much to look at although Dave Lowry's russet playoff beard was an all-timer. The Panthers had Brian Skrudland, Stu Barnes, Mike Hough, Paul Laus, Scott Mellanby and Radek Dvorak, who were the Radim Vrbata and Lee Stempniak et. al. of another generation. The Panthers also had a rookie defenseman named Ed Jovanovski, who now anchors the Phoenix back end.

Jovanovski says the self-confidence levels of the two teams is on the same plane. "Same sort of thing," he said. "Except this (Coyotes) team has more talent."

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