It was reported first by San Jose Sharks beat writer David Pollack, first with a question mark…
Burns practicing as forward? #SJSharks McLellan says it takes more energy to practice at that position than d-man and Burns getting close.
— David Pollak (@PollakOnSharks) March 11, 2013
Which it absolutely does, but when his spot in the lineup persisted, it didn’t appear that “conditioning” was the reason:
Which led him to remind fans…
Which takes us to where we are today:
McLellan expects #SJSharks Burns to get clearance to play tonight vs. STL – and he’ll be on 3rd line w/23 and 15 plus power play time on D.
— David Pollak (@PollakOnSharks) March 12, 2013
Boom. The San Jose Sharks (once) All-Star defenseman Brent Burns is going to play forward tonight for the San Jose Sharks, on a line with Scott Gomez and James Sheppard.
He played forward for the Minnesota Wild (Jacques Lemaire was quite the fan of having him up there, as noted by Pro Hockey Talk), but was eventually moved back, found success, and has been a d-man ever since. Burns is a 6’5″ dude who tilts the scales at 220, for a little context.
I’ve seen this experiment a number of times, so some thoughts:
Desperate times, desperate measures
This is not a move a team makes when things are going well, and for the Sharks “not going well” is a fair description of late. Maybe you see this in a one game fill-in move for some junior team who doesn’t have time to call anyone up when a regular forward eats bad sashimi for his pre-game meal and can’t play that night, but for an NHL team, this only happens when you’re grasping at straws. I understand that Burns has played some forward before, but that doesn’t mean he’s meant to be one. There’s a reason he settled on the back-end.
Oh man, do d-men ever love being the one charging in to lay the body on a forecheck instead of being the guy going back to get the puck for once. They fly through the neutral zone, and you have no idea what’s going to come next. Will they:
* Jump the gun and go offside?
* Get locked in and hit the d-man in a sketchy manner?
* Take a penalty for charging, boarding, or elbowing?
* Lay the body and win the puck?
It’s usually one of the first three, or some variation of “car crash, anything could happen here.”
The one nice thing about being a defenseman is having the play in front of you for the better part of the game. As a forward, you’re in the eye of the storm. Instead of sitting with your back to the wall in the restaurant while watching for a teammate who might be shoe-checking you, you’ve got to watch for all angles (if you don’t know what a shoecheck is, I mentioned it in this older article).
Point is, you’re in the eye of the storm, and have to know what’s going on behind, beside and in front of you. On a neutral zone regroup, trying to figure out where to come back to, where to cross and when…it’s just a lot of in-game education that you need reps at to understand. In hockey, feel is important, and your first few (dozen) times may find you out of position, which certainly doesn’t help your linemates.
This is where d-men tend to struggle when making the switch.
I don’t know why this is, but d-men-come-forwards always seem to suddenly get more physical (I think because they know they’re less likely to help in the offense-creating categories). You know what you’re getting – minimal touch plays, safe chips and dumps, finished checks.
In the end, it’s rare that a defenseman getting moved up sticks. It’s a stop-gap, it’s plugging the hole in the dam with gum, and it’s usually not that pretty. It may go well for the first couple games (“Y’know, I really liked the energy Burnsy provided us with tonight, I thought he did a good job getting in on the forecheck and getting the body, and I thought his work ethic helped us out a lot”), but for the most part, this is an experiment that tends to die on the vine.