Cross Checks: Phoenix Coytes
The experiment is over, at least for now, in Anaheim. It was over quickly in Phoenix. But it's still going on in Atlanta.
The experiment, that is, of switching a player from his natural position. When camps opened around the league last month, Bobby Ryan in Anaheim and Wojtek Wolski in Phoenix shifted from wing to center. Both are now back at wing.
"We still feel that Bobby is capable of playing that position, but we just didn't feel it worked out right now," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "We're shelving it. It'll be on the side for now, but don't be surprised if you see him back there at some point."
"And he wants to be a defenseman," Thrashers GM Rick Dudley told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "To be honest with you, what's a 265-pound defenseman who can score somewhere from 10 to 20 goals worth?
"I think he's an inordinate talent," Dudley added. "I think Dustin Byfuglien can be a star in the National Hockey League anywhere he wants to play. And the truth is, when you plug Dustin on defense for our team, we have a very good top 5-6. You take him out, and it's a little less good."
It is, after all, the position Byfuglien was playing when Chicago drafted him seven years ago. Dudley oversaw his development while in the Blackhawks' front office and saw him play at both positions. When Dudley got wind in the offseason that defense is really where Byfuglien wants to play, he talked with coach Craig Ramsay and they decided to give it a try.
"He played two [preseason] games on defense before getting the hip pointer and played very well," Dudley said. "At the end of the day, if we desperately need him up front, he's more than willing to go back. But I told him if he came to camp ready, we would give him an opportunity to play defense. Everybody was onside with it, and so far it's been successful."
Byfuglien was pressed into action on defense when the Hawks began the playoffs last spring, when blue-line injuries, most notably to Brian Campbell, made it necessary. The result was a mixed bag.
"You have to remember, he hadn't played there in a long time," Dudley said. "It's a lot different going right into a game without having played it for a year or two. Now he's had training camp. He's comfortable there now. ...
"I can't predict the future, but right now we're very happy with him."
In Anaheim, Ryan will begin the season on the top line playing left wing, flanking Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Just a week ago, the Ducks were still thinking hard about beginning the season with Ryan as the second-line center and Saku Koivu on the third line, the idea being that a one-two-three punch of Getzlaf-Ryan-Koivu down the middle would give the Ducks a more balanced offense over three lines. The Ducks also thought Ryan would move his feet more skating at center.
"Everybody loves the concept of having your big men down the middle," Carlyle said. "The thought was having Bobby Ryan play center, right behind Ryan Getzlaf down the middle, and Bobby did play a bit of center for us near the end of the year when Getzlaf was hurt. So it wasn't something that was out of left field. But we felt he wasn't playing at the level that we're accustomed to, so we thought we'd move him back [to wing] and get him comfortable again."
Maybe it's just me, but it seems easier for a center to shift to wing rather than vice versa. That's why I think Evgeni Malkin won't have any issue if he does indeed play most of the season at wing instead of his natural center position in Pittsburgh. It's why Philadelphia's Jeff Carter, a natural center, can bounce back and forth between wing and the middle. But when a natural winger shifts to center, suddenly he absorbs more defensive responsibilities, especially down low in his own end, and has to cover more ice. It's a bigger adjustment.
"Usually, 90 percent of the time, your center is your low-support forward," Carlyle said. "Some teams, historically, when they have small center-ice men, might designate their bigger winger to play down low. But it doesn't happen too much in the NHL."
So, when a winger like Ryan shifts to center, it's a whole new world down low in the defensive zone.
I applaud the Ducks for trying it. In the end, the more versatile your lineup can be, the better.
The Coyotes, meanwhile, didn't think they had to move Wolski when all was said and done. They were concerned about their depth down the middle after the offseason losses of Matthew Lombardi and Robert Lang, so Wolski saw some time at center early in camp.
"Our situation with Wolski was a couple of things," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett told ESPN.com via e-mail from Europe on Tuesday. "1, when we talked about trying him at center, we had not yet signed [Eric] Belanger, and 2, we wanted to see where [Kyle] Turris was at. Turris had a very good camp and Wolski felt more comfortable at wing, so we ended the experiment. With Hanzal, Belanger, Fiddler and Turris at center, Wolski gives us a top-six left winger."
So that's that. But it wasn't a wasted experiment. Should the Coyotes get hammered down the middle with injuries this season, at least they know they can move Wolski in the middle. Ditto in Anaheim, where Carlyle will keep that card in his back pocket with Ryan.