Let me open by stating that I love Brent Burns as a forward. Great style of play and very effective. I absolutely buy Neutral’s argument that the "experiment" was a success. However, I think two points not yet raised are needed in order to get a more complete argument.
First, a quick one. Perhaps an overlooked part of the reason why the switch to forward has been a "success" is that the right-handed defensemen (and the blueline in general) have been a pretty solid group. Justin Braun has made something of a leap this year, and Jason Demers is having a bounce-back year (and perhaps about to get a nice bridge contract). Boyle has unfortunately not had a typical year for him with that awful, awful boarding, but is still pretty good. The blueline as a group has performed, in my view, above expectations, and this: 1) helps make Burns’ style of play possible (because puck exits successfully happen; and btw, big thumbs-up for including these in the numbers posts), and 2) Burns just gets to work on being a winger with Thornton on a consistent basis.
Second, a longer point. I think you have to look at Burns’ D numbers to help make the claim that the he really is more helpful to the team at forward. So, I’m going to make two comparisons. First, we can look at similar rates of goals and points/60, as Neutral did, with the other right-handed defensemen on San Jose’s roster. We should be able to see Burns’ value in relation to his "competitors" on the blueline. Second, we can also compare goal and point rates with other similarly gifted offensive defensemen (in this case, league-wide sorted by points/60 rates). I think Burns’ value on the blueline is his offense, so making these comparisons should tell us something about his value in relation to the Sharks and in relation to other players with similar styles.
Ok, so we need to get some numbers for Burns as a D. Here, I decided to look at his rates from his last season at Minnesota and his first season with San Jose (2010-2012). Conveniently, stats.hockeyanalysis.com has running totals for several year segments. I think these provide some baseline for comparison even though he would probably be a better defensemen now had he been playing defense the entire time. Then, I grabbed the same rates for the other right-handed shooting defensemen on the team for this year (Braun, Demers, and Boyle for 2013-2014). I’m also going to add in Boyle’s rates derived from his other San Jose seasons, the four years from 20082-2012, for context.
Now, for a league-wide comparison of offensive defensemen, I am adding the top five defensemen in points/60 who have played more than 750 minutes this year (2013-2014). They are: Victor Hedman, Duncan Keith, Erik Karlsson, Brent Seabrook, and Alex Pietrangelo. Not a bad group.
(Remember the somewhat obvious point that goal-scoring rates are significantly less for defensemen (any defensemen) than forwards. The positions have different responsibilities and can vary with linemates. For the purpose of this argument, I am just going to focus on the offensive contributions. Obviously, there are other ways to compare offensive defensemen (such as on-ice Corsi or Fenwick), but I thought for the sake of consistency to utilize the same statistics as Neutral did.)
Table-time. All 5v5 via stats.hockeyanalysis.com.
First, the comparison with other Sharks defensemen. Braun’s been very good, but his offensive numbers do not stand out. Part of this is deployment, another part are the forwards on the ice, and the final part, his own abilities (and the final, final part, luck). Now, in comparing Boyle 2008-2012, Burns 2010-2012, and Demers 2013-2014, that’s a three-headed offensive monster in terms of points. Demers, though, seems to benefit from other players' scoring (as his goal rate is worse than even Braun). What is really striking is that Burns and Boyle’s compiled numbers are relatively close. This suggests that before his shift to forward, Burns was already competing with, if not had eclipsed, Boyle as the team’s best right-handed offensive defenseman. His goal rate is about 1/3 greater than Boyle’s and only about 2% less on the points rate. (And I love Dan Boyle’s game.)
Second, the comparison with the top five defensemen in terms of points/60 (playing >750 minutes). Burns as a D clearly is not in the elite class. Karlsson and Hedman’s goal rates are just sick. Keith and Seabrook, like Demers, seem to benefit from others scoring on the ice, but put up a ton more points/60. Pietrangelo has the most similar numbers, but still betters Boyle and Burns’ compiled figures, and Demers. Though, I should note, that 0.982 points/60 (Burns) would be good enough for 25th in the league (playing >750 minutes).
Bottom line: the numbers support the argument that it is more probable that Burns is an elite winger than an elite offensive defensemen. I think he is also probably the best right-handed offensive defensemen on the Sharks. More than anything else, this suggests that 1) given the performance of the other Sharks defensemen, Burns will end the season as a forward, and 2) with Demers being RFA and Boyle UFA that the off-season will be an interesting one.