When a San Jose Sharks player had to leave practice last March, coach Todd McLellan asked defenceman Brent Burns to jump in on line rushes as a forward.
McLellan experimented with Burns in the minors several years ago, and it made too much sense not to at least try it at the NHL level. The Sharks had too many defencemen, not enough forwards because of injuries and certainly not as many goals as they were used to scoring.
That practice was the “entree” for McLellan to approach Burns with his plan.
“If you could make it half his idea or at least get him to believe that he can have success there and the team can have success, then you have a chance,” McLellan said Tuesday. “We had a relationship that we had built, Brent and I, in the minors in Minnesota. I think he trusts us as a group. So it wasn’t smooth all the time, but it was something that ended up being successful for us.”
In 37 regular-season games since making the switch, Burns has 17 goals and 17 assists. There was some doubt at the time about moving the 6-foot-5, 230-pounder to right wing, but linemate and captain Joe Thornton figured it was a “no-brainer.”
He was right.
“He’s always been bags and bags of skill,” Thornton said earlier this season. “You’d just seen him on defence and just practising for so long, you just recognize he loves to have the puck, he loves to play with the puck. For a big man he has great hands. We’ve always seen that out of him.”
Having Burns as a right-winger wasn’t general manager Doug Wilson’s intent when he traded a first-round pick, Devin Setoguchi and then-prospect Charlie Coyle to the Wild for Burns and a second-rounder at the 2011 draft. Wilson just knew the Sharks were getting a “dynamic player.”
“Supply and demand trying to find defencemen or that type of player that has even the ability to impact games ... power wingers, good luck trying to find them, too,” he said in a phone interview. “We gave up what we thought was fair to get what is a very sought-after ingredient, which is either defenceman/power forward, and we’re very pleased with Burnsie.”
It’s hard to be displeased with how Burns has handled the transition. The 28-year-old Ontario native missed 13 games with a facial injury this season but aside from that has thrived on the top line alongside rookie sensation Tomas Hertl and Thornton.
Burns said playing with Thornton, and now Hertl, aided his adjustment. But he’s accustomed to moving back and forth dating to his time with the OHL’s Brampton Batallion and then under McLellan with the AHL’s Houston Aeros.
“There’s different parts that are difficult at both positions,” Burns said. “I think they both have their challenges, different responsibilities, different stresses kind of thing.”
Naturally, Burns is a different kind of player depending on which position he’s at.
“I think as a forward he plays more with reckless abandon, more free,” McLellan said. “As a D-man there’s more structure in his game, and from how I know Burnsie he’s better off with the reckless abandon than the structure.”
Reckless abandon coupled with Burns’s massive size makes him a challenging match-up for opponents.
“A big body, he creates a lot, he’s got a great shot,” centre Joe Pavelski said. “Obviously with him in the lineup it gives us that extra forward and that little extra dangerous aspect to our game.”
And there’s the added advantage that Burns has less to worry about than as a defenceman. Centre Logan Couture said Burns “doesn’t have to think” as a forward.
“He goes out there, he skates, he bangs bodies, makes things happen up front,” he said.
It’s always possible Burns moves back to the blueline at some point; McLellan noted the door has been left open for that. But barring the unforeseen, it won’t happen any time soon.
“If we need him, we feel very comfortable about it,” McLellan said. “I think he’s well on his way to establishing a very dominant career as a forward, and I don’t know if we want to derail that.”