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Teams find solace in second line of defense

There is a common denominator among the highest scoring defensemen in the league this year and it...

There is a common denominator among the highest scoring defensemen in the league this year and it can be traced back to draft day. (REUTERS)

MACKENZIE LIDDELL, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 3:09 PM ET

TORONTO -- There is a common denominator among the highest scoring defensemen in the league this year and it can be traced back to draft day.

All but one of the top-10 scorers from the blueline this season were drafted outside of the first round with Ryan Whitney (fifth overall in 2002) the lone exception.

Mike Green (29th in 2004), the roving rearguard for the high-octane Washington Capitals, has struggled with consistency and is on pace for 35 points, less than half of what he has put up the past two years.

Prodigal defenseman Drew Doughty has also had trouble putting up points after missing time to injury and hasn't been able to catch up to the pack, although he has eight points in his past five games.

Unlike the forward ranks, where top-scorers Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos were top-of-the-board selections, the defensemen getting it done his year haven't taken the conventional route to success.

Atlanta's duo of Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom are the most interesting of all.

Originally selected in the 8th round (245th overall) by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2003, Byfuglien has emerged as one of the most deadly and versatile pointmen in the league.

After busting out in the 2009-10 playoffs as a big-bodied net presence for the Hawks, the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder was shipped to Atlanta in the summer and was immediately converted from forward to defenseman - his natural position - by GM Rick Dudley, who saw plenty of Byfuglien during his time as assistant GM of the Hawks.

"I want to establish myself as a defenseman," Byfuglien told Yahoo! Sports before the start of the 2010-11 season. "That's what I always played coming up. I think I did a good job at forward in Chicago, but I think I can be the player on defense that I was at forward. I'd like to add that tool to my bag. I think I'll fit in here very well on defense."

Thrashers' first-year coach Craig Ramsay didn't doubt what the big man was capable of from the get-go.

"He's got a ways to go, but he's a big body back there with a good stick, which is really a nice thing to have," Ramsay said. "And he can jump up from there (to join the rush), which makes him hard to cover."

It's a move that paid immediate dividends for Atlanta, as 'Big Buff' leads all defensemen in scoring with 12 goals, 36 points and five game- winners. He is also a plus-10 and is averaging around 22 minutes a night.

While Byfuglien's big frame takes up most of the spotlight, he wouldn't be enjoying such success without the services of his D-partner Tobias Enstrom.

Taken six spots before Byfuglien in'03, the diminutive Finn is building towards a career year after quietly putting up 50 points last season.

He is currently tied for third in scoring with 28 points and plays in all situations, averaging more than 24 minutes a game.

The duo's success might seem unusual for players drafted so late, but it's becoming a trend league-wide in 2010-11.

Pittsburgh's Kris Letang, who is receiving plenty of consideration for the Norris Trophy, was passed up in favor of 61 players before the Penguins took him in the third round in '05.

Then there is Duncan Keith. The reigning Norris winner and Stanley Cup champion was taken 54th overall in 2002.

And of course there is the Nicklas Lidstrom story.

The greatest defenseman of this generation, who is working towards his seventh Norris Trophy, and one of the best all-time was a third round pick.

A few other big names to add to the list of sleeper picks include Boston's Zdeno Chara (56th in '96) and San Jose's Dan Boyle, who went undrafted after a successful career at the University of Miami (Ohio).

Sure, picking closer to No. 1 seems to be the safest bet to lock up franchise-caliber players, but it's far from a guarantee.

Each player has a different development timeline and just because they are passed up as teenagers doesn't mean they won't be worth their wait down the road.


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