Something that the Atlanta Thrashers have always seemed to have had a shortage of is top pairing defensemen - or at the very least defensemen who work together enough to prevent forty shots on goal a game. The Thrashers took a huge step to fix that situation when they drafted Tobias Enstrom in 2003. Enstrom was an 8th round steal, picked 239th overall, but scouted very very well. Since his debut in 2007, he has shown what a big time talent he is, netting 134 assists and setting himself up for a defensive rating of +8 on a team that's been poison to other +/- ratings of the past. Enstrom was sensational last season, setting a team record for assists in a season by a defenseman with fifty. Last year he was paired with Pavel Kubina for most of the season, but free agency and a trade changed that for the better.
Dustin Byfuglien was dealt to Atlanta this summer as part of the package deal that saw Marty Reasoner, Jeremy Morin, and a few draft picks head to Chicago. When he got to Atlanta, and the news was announced that he would be moved back to defense, which was the position that Chicago drafted him to play, there was a ruckus. Here was someone who just scored eleven goals in the playoffs by camping in front of the opponent's crease, and he'll be moved back to the blueline? Pundits predicted failure. But, proving why pundits are pundits and not coaches, the exact opposite has happened. Byfuglien leads the Thrashers and all NHL defensemen with sixteen goals and 41 points this season.
Arguably the leagues top two defensemen so far this season, Byfuglien and Enstrom have the benefit of being paired together on the same line in Atlanta. You can laugh at the dissimilarities (Toby's 5'10" and 180 pounds, and Buff is 6'5" and 265 pounds), but these two guys have brought out the best in each other. Byfuglien runs and joins the play, and Toby is the responsible one back at the blueline, waiting for a pass to set his partner up for a booming shot on the point. Or, as we saw the other day in the game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Enstrom actually passed up ice to Byfuglien on a scoring chance. How often does that happen?
The buzz has been around Byfuglien for a while, but Enstrom's leading the Thrashers with 24:20 of ice time a night, taking 27 shifts a game. He's out there on the powerplay, leading the team with 21 powerplay points - five goals and sixteen assists. Enstrom and Buff both have about 200 more minutes of total time on ice than the closest forward, Andrew Ladd. If you want to know who the Thrashers are built around, all you really have to do is look at the numbers. The Thrashers are built around Byfuglien and Enstrom - let's see if the team captains in the all star game keep these two guys together. They'd be nuts if they didn't try.