- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 15, 2011

ATLANTA (AP) - All-Star defenseman Dustin Byfuglien signed a five-year, $26 million contract extension with the Atlanta Thrashers on Tuesday.

The 25-year-old Byfuglien would have been a restricted free agent after the season.

Byfuglien, acquired in an offseason trade with Chicago, has enjoyed immediate success in Atlanta. He leads the Thrashers with 43 points and leads all NHL defensemen with 17 goals.

Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley said the new contract was a top priority for the team.

Dustin has emerged into an elite player this season and been invaluable as a leader both on and off the ice,” Dudley said. “It was a priority to sign him and we’re looking forward to witnessing his All-Star caliber play for many years to come.”

Byfuglien said the new contract has “a little more weight put on me.”

“It’s definitely a challenge I’m willing to take, and hopefully everything turns out good,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting. It’s a new journey and I’m definitely ready to get on board and see where it takes us.”

Byfuglien, from Minneapolis, has been at his best in clutch situations. He has six game-winning goals, one shy of the NHL season record for a defenseman.

He emerged for the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks in the playoffs last season. He said he sees a good future with the youth on the Atlanta roster.

“There’s lots of good young talent here,” Byfuglien said.

“We can only get better. The way the year has gone, it’s definitely a learning curve. It’s nice to be a part of that and watch it come again.”

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