Most of us saw Dustin Byfuglien in the playoffs but being in the Western conference didn't see many of his games, if any, in the regular season. In order to see how good he really is and how he might fit into the Thrashers I reviewed some video. I watched 4 full games archived online from the last Blackhawks regular season (from 4 different points in the season) and solely watched Byfuglien and made notes on every shift. I also re-watched every goal he scored in the NHL to see under what kinds of conditions he can score. I'll spare you (and myself) all of the details and instead give summaries and my overall impressions.
10/12/09 against Calgary
He played on the 2nd line of Byfuglien-Bolland-Kane and on the 2nd power play unit. He was a puck magnet: wherever the puck went, he went. He is a very hard skater and hustled every shift. He is unusually strong and fast. He always will follow through with his hits and will hit if given the opportunity. In fact, I noticed that he lead the Blackhawks in hits last season and was 2nd on the team in hits both 2 seasons prior. He's pretty good along the boards, average in open ice. He will screen the goaltender even at even strength if the puck is safely in the zone. On the power play he always played in front of the goal and was good at holding his ground. I hate to say it but he is a terrible puck handler, he almost never makes a move to create a play. He looked like an average to decent passer to me too. About half of his shifts were effective, the other half were mediocre (except for one really bad shift where he gave away the puck and Calgary scored.)
12/5/09 against Pittsburgh
He played on the 3rd line of Brouwer-Madden-Byfuglien and on the 2nd power play unit. He had several bad shifts and a couple of good ones. He made a couple bad passes and dumps but also a couple good passes and shots. I only saw one lazy defensive moment but I realized that that was the first time I saw him play bad D, which is a good sign. He was again a puck magnet and hard skater, tons of effort from this guy. Sometimes you will see him in one play, and when the camera pans and changes frames to a new play, he will follow the puck and be over there too. This "all over" presence is very good. He always drives the center lane and to the net, some wingers don't do this but its a good trait to have because it leads to more goals. On the breakout he is the designated forward to creep along the blueline waiting for a pass, he's never the one bringing the puck up on the breakout, probably because of his bad puckhandling skills.
1/17/10 against Detroit
He played on the 3rd line of Versteeg-Madden-Byfuglien and on the 1st power play unit. His linemate Versteeg seemed to lead the line, but Buff still had the unusually high energy and speed seen before. Their line was given a variety of start positions. He had a great slapshot on the power play, and come to think of it that was the first time I saw a big shot from him. Until then it was only tip in and jam in shots. It makes me think that he could be a much better player if he were to use it more often (if someone were to pass it to him while he's open he could be dangerous). He played on the left point on the power play as opposed to the front of the net this game, but he was equally effective there. He had a bad play where he bowled over a teammate behind the net, probably a consequence of skating so hard, but still not a good play to make. Had a great defensive play where he broke up a Zetterberg breakaway. Very strong defensive presence and defensive reliability. Some good moments included a great move to the net, a shift with sustained pressure, and once he picked up the goalie's stick and handed it to him when they were pinned in at even strength. Some bad moments included a clean giveaway, once he tried to pressure the defense but couldn't get there in time and got scored on, and once stupidly gave an opponent without the puck a free-handed shove along the boards (ref didn't see it so no penalty).
3/7/10 against Detroit
He played on the 4th line of Eager-Kopecky-Byfuglien and on the 1st power play unit. Lots of missed opportunities and shifts where they were pinned in their zone the whole time. They scored on the power play but it was waved off because of a questionable call on Buff interfering with the goalie, but no penalty was given other than the goal being waved off. I'm afraid that most of his shifts were ineffective, but that's not surprising because when playing on the 4th line its tough to do anything; the quality of your teammates is lower and the quality of the opposition is usually higher, so in that regard we might not hold that against him. Plus there were a lot of bad plays coming out of Eager, who would always dump-and-chase and make bad passes and clearing attempts. Buff hit someone really hard and sent him off the ice, but it was clean hit and no penalty was given. Buff was actually used as the 6th attacker in the final minute of the game which is a good sign.
Common themes I saw
The first thing you notice is his great speed and physicality. He is a "defense first" type of player in my opinion and is almost always back there in time. The effort level is practically through the roof with this guy. He was always the designated forechecker when the other team breaks out, and was always the designated blue line creeper waiting for a pass when his team broke out. He is pretty versatile (useful as a 3rd line grinder all the way up to a top line scorer as we saw in the playoffs). He was always on power play, and was never on the penalty kill, but if desperate I could envision him playing on the PK.
After reviewing all of his regular season and playoff goals, some common trends are obvious. Almost all of his goals are scored directly in front of the net or between the faceoff circles. Even though he's a winger, he will move to the center to shoot, which I think is a great tendency for a player to have. He can score from far out, some goals were even from the blueline on the power play. He can really elevate the puck on his wristshots too. A vast majority of his goals (especially recent ones) are tip ins/jam ins and rebounds. Overall, of the 66 goals, only 5 of them I would say came out of a play that he created or a nice move that he made (5/21/10, 5/11/10, 12/9/09, 2/28/08, 2/13/08). Unfortunately there weren't many of those goals that make hockey analysts sit up and pay attention, instead they were mostly ones that were forced in with strength and energy.
A good but not elite power forward. He's a great power play threat and has a great shot that I wish I could see more of. He's pretty much like a better version of Evgeny Artyukhin. He is a terrible puckhandler and not a playmaker at all; he basically goes from point A to point B with nothing creative in between. He makes an average number of stupid plays, which we expect all players to make at some point or another, like going offsides or losing your temper.
Where he might fit into the Thrashers
Buff would play well with someone who has finesse or a nice shot but has difficulty fighting for the puck. A playoff team with some depth might put him on the 3rd line, whereas a non-playoff team might put him on the 2nd line or possibly on the top line. His salary of $3M and the holes created by departing UFA pretty much dictates that he will be on the 2nd line or higher, and wisely will probably play on the power play. He plays the position of Nik Antropov on the power play, but could be moved to left point as well.
Keep in mind that this is only a sample of video of Byfuglien, and my impressions are just my own. I am interested to hear what people who have watched full seasons of Buff say. How you feel about the trade strongly depends on your confidence in Byfuglien and if he will improve.