The NHL's Oddest Couple?
The defensive pairing of Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom has given the Thrashers a huge boost.
There's a lot of hit and miss when trying to find the perfect defensive pairing.
Some combinations work, some don't and there's no rhyme or reason to explain success or lack of it.
Atlanta Thrashers Head Coach Craig Ramsay said as much about the genesis of the defensive pairing of Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom which has proven to be one of the most offensively explosive pairings in the NHL.
"I've tried a lot of different people. I just put them together and it happened to work. I think they do a great job together,” said Ramsay. “'Buff' is a bit of a gambler. Toby is an excellent defensive defenseman as well as a kid who can handle the puck. But Toby battles and he's just amazingly strong for a small man. He wins his battles down low in the zone. He's got a great stick. So, together, the big guy and the little guy, it seems to work out extremely well."
The pairing of Byfuglien, the team's biggest defenseman at 6-5, 265, and Enstrom, its smallest at 5-10, 180, has been as cohesive in practice (and games), as it was improbable in theory.
They've combined for 45 points, with Byfuglien's 25 points (9G, 16A) leading the team and all NHL defensemen, while Enstrom's 20 (3G, 17A) rank third (behind captain Andrew Ladd) and tie for fourth among NHL blueliners, with Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom. Byfuglien is tied for the team lead in goals with Evander Kane (he leads NHL blue-liners), while Enstrom leads the team in assists. Byfuglien is tied for second with Ladd.
The duo has been especially dynamic on the power play, which is third in the NHL, converting at 24.7 percent.
Together, Enstrom and Byfuglien have combined for 26 of the team's 70 power play points, (6G, 20A). Each has 13 power play points — Byfuglien has 9 goals, 4 assists, Enstrom has 2G, 11A — which leads NHL defensemen and ties for fourth overall in the league. They are the only defensemen in the league's top 15 in power play points and entered play Tuesday tied with Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Colorado's Milan Hejduk and Minnesota's Matt Cullen, only one point behind Washington's Alex Ovechkin and two behind Martin St. Louis of Tampa Bay who is second to Steven Stamkos who leads the NHL with 20 power-play points.
Breaking it down further, Enstrom leads NHL defensemen with 11 power play assists and he is third in the league, one behind Ovechkin and three behind league leader St. Louis. He also leads Atlanta, logging 24:34 minutes per game, 16th in the NHL.
Byfuglien's four power-play goals tie him for 12th in the league and for the lead among defensemen, while his nine power play assists are third among defensemen and tied for sixth in the league.
In addition to his power play prowess, Byfuglien has continued the clutch-scoring he displayed during last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, when he had seven game-winning goals, as he leads the NHL with five game-winners. His two overtime markers tie for the league-lead with New Jersey's Ilya Kovalchuk.
Thrashers captain Andrew Ladd knows Byfuglien well from their days together in Chicago and he can't say enough about what Buff brings to the table.
"I don't think there's anyone else in the league with his size, skating ability, and skill. When he's going top speed there's no one that can stop him. He's a pretty special player and we're lucky to have him."
Only together since training camp, Enstrom and Byfuglien already complement each other as if they'd been together a lot longer.
"What I like the most is that he can move the puck," said Enstrom. "He's a skilled guy, he can skate well, I really enjoy that I can give it to him and I can get it back. It's a big part of our game."
"I can see the game, where he is and where he's going to go with the puck and what his options are," added Byfuglien, who was named the NHL's Second Star of the Week on Monday for his two goal, six point week. "We can feed off each other. We’ve just worked together well so far."
When the duo was first paired, a big concern was that Byfuglien, who primarily played left wing during his career, would revert to that mindset, abandoning defense, and Enstrom.
That issue has never materialized.
“Toby is one guy who's really good positionally,” said goaltender Chris Mason. “With his skating ability, he's got the ability to get back in the zone and also join the rush and not compromise his defensive position. ‘Buff,’ that's probably the one thing that he's really improved the most. Obviously, before he was a good skater, he could get up in the play and now I think his decision-making, with the experience of playing more, he's starting to kind of have a better idea of when to go and when to stay back. They've just been great for us.”
The pair has established good communication and trust in each other.
"He's adjusted really well to playing defense this year," said Enstrom, who is. "If he wants to move up the ice I'm good with that. I've got a read off him and so he's really good both ways."
"He'll say 'Don't be afraid to join. I've got you,'" said Byfuglien. "It works the same way if I see him up. There has been a couple of times where I'll see him up and I'll think, 'I might as well join him and see what we can do.' It never ends up turning out to be a good ending. We just feed off each other."
The two appear to appear to be feeding off each other in unexpected and eye-opening ways. For example, Enstrom’s open-ice, hip check that up-ended Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in the Nov. 13th meeting with Pittsburgh. Was that show of physicality from the finesse Enstrom a result of playing with Byfuglien?
"Not really," said a smiling Enstrom, who has never missed a game in four-plus seasons — the streak is up to 270 games. "Once in a while, if it's a good opportunity. I think he's the guy that has to take care of that."
"No. I'm not that small so I can't throw too many hip checks," added Byfuglien with a laugh."
The Malkin hit notwithstanding, both admit that they constantly learn from each other.
"I think if you want to get better as a hockey player you have to look around and see what other people do," said Enstrom. "The way he plays I can pick up a lot of stuff."
"His poise and patience with the puck. He doesn't get himself into too much trouble," said Byfuglien. "He's just a smooth player. There's lots that I've learned just from watching him."
Enstrom and Byfuglien have been so vital to the team that both recently were named alternate captains in support of Ladd. They also were recognized by the League, as they are the Thrashers' representatives on the ballot for the 2011 All-Star Game, to be played as part of All-Star Weekend, Jan. 29-30 at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C. (vote here).
Playing together at the NHL's mid-season showcase has entered their minds, albeit briefly.
"[Playing in the All-Star Game] would mean so much," said Byfuglien. "It's an honor to be on the ballot but there's still a long way until they make that decision. So we just have to stay here and try to get our team on the winning way."
"Of course it would be fun but we don't really think about that right now," added Enstrom, who played in the YoungStars Game during 2008 All-Star Weekend held at Philips Arena. "There are a lot of games coming up here. I've been here for a couple of years and haven't made the playoffs yet. So that's the only thing on our minds right now. Try to win and put yourself in a spot where you can make the playoffs at the end of the year."