I’ll spare you the suspense…no.
The big guy is a compelling figure this season, no doubt. Deployed as a forward during his time in Chicago, Byfuglien was a capable contributor to the Blackhawks, albeit in a supporting role. When he was dealt to the Thrashers, the decision to move him back to his natural position seemed like an odd one, given the fact he had mostly skated as a forward in the NHL. His resultant success is a good story – he’s already managed 29 points in 28 games this year, just five short of the career high 36 he scored for Chicago in 2007-08. In fact, he’s currently leading all NHL defenders in scoring and his four shots on net per game is also a league high.
Those are some eye-popping numbers, particularly on a team that doesn’t exactly boast the kind of supporting cast that could be goosing his results. But, like other defenders who put up big numbers from the blueline, it doesn’t mean Byfuglien deserves the Norris.
Byfuglien’s circumstances this year have been of the favorable variety this season. He plays top-six type competition, but he’s not deployed as a real, shut-down option in the same manner of, say, Duncan Keith or Nicklas Lidstrom. He has averaged just nine seconds of PK ice per game this year, as compared to the 3:48/game he sees with the man advantage, for example. What’s more, Byfuglien’s offensive zone start ratio is one of the friendliest amongst Atlanta’s regular defenders: only Ron Hainesy (52.4%) has started more often in the offensive zone than Byfgulien (51.9%) thus far. In contrast, consider Zach Bogosian (36.8%) and Johnny Oduya (37.6%) – a pair of guys who are getting completely buried at even strength in order to give Byfuglien the high ground.
Add in an 8.9% shooting percentage that is probably unsustainable from the back-end plus a Thrashers power-play that is operating at a clip far beyond what their talent would suggest (24.9%) and you have a nice stats line and a great story, but probably not the best defender in the league. None of this is to say that the Thrashers aren’t garnering some great value out of the big guy on their back-end, just that he’s simply not in the same league as the Keiths and Lidstroms of the world.