"It's a commitment right now."
Those were the words of Sharks head coach Todd McLellan back in training camp when Patrick Marleau brought up the notion that Brent Burns, converted from forward back to defense to start the season, could possibly see time up front. While McLellan qualifying his statement with "right now" seemed to leave the door open for Burns to potentially be a winger again somewhere down the road, today's trade of Jason Demers for Brenden Dillon likely indicates a full organizational commitment to Burns' transition.
Much has been made about Dillon being a left-handed shot, with Doug Wilson indicating that was one of the main attributes they coveted, while Jason Demers shoots right. It's no secret the Sharks have needed someone who can slot in behind Marc-Edouard Vlasic on the left side of their blueline dating back to last season, a shortcoming painfully exposed when Vlasic was injured and unable to play in the final three games of the team's playoff series against Los Angeles. But dealing a right-handed defenseman with a recent track record of capably logging top-pairing minutes alongside Vlasic in order to acquire that lefty seems to indefinitely entrench Justin Braun and Burns as San Jose's top two right-side blueliners.
Moving Burns back to right wing, regardless of whether or not it has ever been seriously discussed internally this season, was always going to be contingent on the Sharks somewhat replicating their top four from a year ago. When Burns was still playing forward, Vlasic skated alongside Demers on the first even-strength pair while Braun was paired with the next-best lefty; that was Brad Stuart last season and would have been Mirco Mueller had the Sharks switched Burns back this season.
While Dillon is a clear upgrade on Demers in most respects, this swap makes envisioning a blueline without Burns rather difficult. The Sharks didn't acquire Dillon to play on the right side, whether with Vlasic or Mueller, and it seems unlikely that they would force their 19-year-old rookie to play his off side just as he's beginning to get comfortable with the NHL game. Taylor Fedun and Matt Tennyson have had great starts to the year in Worcester but neither is ready to step into a top-four role. Despite Burns being a mixed bag, to put it lightly, on defense—only 31 of 157 qualifying defensemen have been worse this season at suppressing even-strength shot attempts—and despite the Sharks' anemic five-aside offense in desperate need of the kind of jolt Burns provided up front a year and a half ago, this deal probably signifies he's staying put on the back end.
At least right now, anyway.