Dustin Byfuglien – A Closer Look



Of all the players that moved north with the erstwhile Thrashers this summer, the one gent whose presence seems to elict the most interesting range of reactions is Dustin Byfuglien. The Warroad native had a breakout offensive season after being dealt to Atlanta, but suspicions remained regarding how much of that success was gifted by percentages and circumstance.

With that in mind, I began to wonder if, in the rush to knock down the unserious people that mentioned Byfuglien for the Norris at the mid-point of the year, those of us that tend to evaluate players with metrics other than points or plus-minus might have lost the forest for a moment. What Atlanta asked Byfuglien to do is incredibly rare at the elite level of the NHL. Players just don’t move to defence after spending the majority of their pro careers at forward as some sort of routine, and the fact that he managed the trick without getting torched is testament to his talent level, good circumstances or not. 

The other thing that I noticed, in the course of examining Atlanta’s EV possession numbers, is that Byfuglien’s own possession stats appeared to improve as the year progressed. I like to examine how players and teams are doing when they aren’t getting every last bounce, so I though it might be worthwhile to see how Byfuglien did at EV the last 47 games of the year, as Atlanta hit a standings ditch.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a strong bias to looking at EV-tied shooting data so that score effect is eliminated. To get started, here are Byfuglien’s EV tied possession stats for the full year, along with splits for the first 35 and last 47 games, in line with the team’s hot start and scuffling finish.


Shots % Fenwick% Corsi % EVSV% EVSH% PDO
BYFUGLIEN – FULL 0.540 0.532 0.532 0.925 7.7% 100.2
BYFUGLIEN GM 1-35 0.513 0.511 0.516 0.947 8.0% 102.7
BYFUGLIEN GM 36-82 0.558 0.545 0.542 0.910 7.6% 98.6


Very interesting. As the season progressed, Byfuglien’s quality work when the game was tied went unrewarded, largely because his goalies began to return to earth after a terrific first part of the year. A defender with the type of numbers Byfuglien posted in the later portion of the year would normally be seen as having played quite well, especially since Atlanta didn’t exactly have forwards that routinely drove possession helping out. 
One of the legitimate criticisms of Byfuglien was that he had a fairly easy go in terms of his starting position, given his full season ZS of 55.6%, and that’s one that’s worth examing a bit more thoroughly. I counted his Zone Start numbers over the last 47 games, and Byfuglien was on the ice for 93 extra OZone draws at EV. The means to parse exactly how many of those draws came when the game was tied is beyond my ability, at least tonight ;-), but in overall terms, the general rule of thumb is that an extra OZone start is worth about .8 Corsi events to the good, so when a player has more chances to start at the other team’s end, it’s reasonable to deduct from their possession figures. 
In all situations at EV, Dustin Byfuglien was on ice for 997 total Corsi events for at EV in the team’s last 47 games, versus 758 against, or + 239. Even allowing for a deduction of 74 on the good side to account for his inflated ZS figure, Dustin Byfuglien was 165 Corsi events to the good over 47 games. Expressed in percentages, Byfuglien’s uncorrected Corsi % over the final 47 games was .568. After dinging him for the extra OZone faceoffs, he still managed a ZS-neutral figure of .549, which is actually pretty damned good for a middle pairing D on a team with shaky forward play.
You’ll also notice that corrected Corsi number is pretty close to his EV-tied performance during the same time period. That makes a bit of sense, really. When the Thrashers were chasing the game, and they were likely doing so more often as the year progressed, Byfuglien almost certainly got every chance on a offensive zone draw, so he’d very likely have more shot attempts/for occur in that scenario, boosting his overall possession figures. When the game was tied, a coach would likely play things a bit more straight-up, so my instinct is that his EV-tied numbers didn’t get nearly as much help from starting in the nice end of the rink.
At any rate, the numbers are very solid. Just as a comparison, Nik Kronwall, playing on a very good team, batted .524 overall and .544 when the game was tied for the year with a ZS of 50.1%, so Byfuglien operated at a very high level during EV play even with a correction for his circumstances. I’m also fairly certain there were no Datsyuks or Zetterbergs hanging out in the ATL last year to help drive the bus, which makes that sort of performance all the more impressive.
On the off chance people think he was being carried by his defence partner, I decided to check Tobias Enstrom’s circumstances as well, and there’s just nothing there to indicate Enstrom was carrying Byfuglien to any great degree. The duo were almost in lockstep in terms of ZS numbers and QComp over the entire season, and the period I’ve highlighted was no different. Enstrom missed 9 games late in the season, but his uncorrected .526 Corsi figured dropped to .506 when the extra 68 OZone draws he was on for over that time frame get factored in. Enstrom’s a fine player any team would be happy to have, but if anyone was driving possession in that duo, it was the big dude.
I suspect this season could be a year of transition for Dustin Byfuglien. He got a relatively easy go of things under Craig Ramsay during his first full year as a defenceman, and my sense is that Claude Noel isn’t going to allow him to spend most of the year acting as a glorified rover. Still, Byfuglien was on-ice for the fewest shots against/60 of any Thrasher D, so it’s possible that allowing him a bit of license might not be the worst idea a coach could have. He might have been unconventional in style, but the numbers rarely lie, and the underlying numbers suggest that Dustin Byfuglien had a very, very good year, even with all his circumstances accounted for.


  • Byfuglien’s improvement over the year was repid. He went from okay at ES (and killer on the PP) to crushing things at 5-on-5 as the year progressed.

    If he sustains that play with even moderately more difficult minutes next year, he might actually be worth that new contract.

  • Nice work Rob.

    He’s easily the most intriguing player on the Jets roster in my mind. Having a player who can generate that many shots from the point is a unique weapon. The fact that he’s not swimming possession-wise ala Babchuk is under-rated.

  • MC Hockey

    Hey Robert, Great article, really shows that Byfuglien is a strong player even accounting for some ZS assistance from his coaches and game circumstances (behind more often in last part of season so he’s on offensive draws). Now here’s the real question: Can you account for the “big scary hairy bearded man effect” he brings to the ice and whether that improves his shooting percentage?