San Jose Sharks  v Columbus Blue Jackets

It was reported first by San Jose Sharks beat writer David Pollack, first with a question mark…

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:

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.

Hammer time

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?

Or…

* 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.”

Swirling action

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.

Simple thuggin’

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.

Comments (12)

  1. You described pretty much his stint at forward under Lemaire. Like a 3rd/4th liner who’s afraid of getting too deep in the zone.

  2. I’m curious to see what other people think about doing this themselves. I’m a forward and sometimes I get drafted to play D in beer league. I last played D when I was in Novice so I’m a little rusty there. I know the basics, but what can I do to be better prepared? I post on this would be nice (Beer League Coaching Column?) How do people feel about going up front or dropping back when they play?

    • Honestly, as someone who goes back and forth between playing forward and defense, the one thing I can say is that I get caught pinching up too much on D, and hanging back on O. I guess it may be me, but I get caught in a different mentality, and that kinda keeps me as hockey’s version of a soccer midfielder; I’m roving at center ice. Though I will say that it really hones your awareness when playing in the opposite position.

  3. this worked out pretty well for wendel clark.. it ( i’m not sure if its coincidental ) also worked out pretty well for mark streit.. not while he was playing forward, but when he went back to full time D.. started puttin up those yearly 50 spots

  4. He started as a forward in junior as well and people forget he was on the 04 world junior team’s first line with Getzlaf and Carter. Probably not as risky as a lot of people will initially make it.

  5. Interesting and pretty spot on. As a lifelong defenseman (who, ahem, recently switched to goalie for fun) I always marvel at how much trouble forwards have when asked to play defense, either during a shift or for a whole game. Most of them are just lost as far as positioning and general awareness of what needs to happen in the backe d.

    Conversely, every time I get asked to play forward, I am amazed at how poorly I understand how to play it in game. As a D I know exactly where I want forwards to be and what angles they should be taking, etc, however once in their shoes I wander aimlessly usually skating backwards up the ice waiting for a pass, lol. My typical default response is to do exactly as the article states: forecheck, grind, chip/dump and try to stir things up.

  6. ironically he goes and scores his first of the season

  7. Didn’t Sergei Fedorov fill-in on D once in a while? If I remember, he was a damn good defenseman when needed.

  8. It worked REALLY well for Chicago and Byfuglien.. Those jerks

  9. I think I remember Sami Kapanen playing D for Carolina, at least a bit in the playoffs. This was back in 2002, I think, when they beat Toronto in the conference finals.

  10. With Havlat out, I like it. Maybe moves Wingels back down to 3rd line.
    If it is easier for Burns to play forward with his injury, and he can also bring some badly needed scoring, that is a definite bonus.

  11. So far so good!

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