One year ago today, the San Jose Sharks were mired in a monumental slump, having won just two of their past nineteen games in regulation while averaging just 1.5 goals per game over that stretch. They were only one point clear of ninth place in the Western Conference and looked more likely to begin a lengthy, painful rebuild than contend for a Stanley Cup. A once-dominant offense had gone ice-cold, particularly struggling to score at even-strength in a continuation of a trend that largely derailed their previous season and led to San Jose's earliest playoff exit in franchise history.
Prior to a game against the Blues on March 12th, 2013, head coach Todd McLellan--who was arguably coaching for his job at that point--made one of the biggest coaching gambles in recent NHL history by inserting All-Star defenseman Brent Burns into the lineup...on right wing. Granted, Burns had initially been drafted by Minnesota in the first round of the 2003 entry draft as a forward but had been converted to blueliner early in his career by none other than McLellan back when the Sharks coach held the same position behind the bench of Minnesota's AHL affiliate. Doing the reverse procedure nearly a decade later, especially considering the financial investment the Sharks had made in Burns with the intention of him taking over Dan Boyle's spot on defense in the future, seemed like a good bet to blow up in everyone's face.
A year later, it's safe to say the opposite has happened. The Brent Burns Experiment has turned out better than any onlooker could have reasonably expected as Burns' play up front was a significant factor in the Sharks' successful stretch drive last season that flowed into a first-round sweep of Vancouver as well as their terrific 2013-14 campaign that has them just two points back of Anaheim for first place in the Pacific Division. Burns has now played 76 games as a forward for the Sharks , with 27 goals and 27 assists over that span. But those numbers don't tell the whole story of the impact the defenseman-turned-Wookiee-turned-forward has had on the team. His uniquely reckless, take-no-prisoners style of play has not only made him captivating to watch but has transformed the Sharks' five-on-five attack, perhaps giving them the offensive firepower needed to legitimately compete with a team like Chicago should the two meet again in the postseason.
Looking at raw totals to judge a player's offensive production can sometimes be misleading. Not everyone plays the same number of minutes per game or the same kinds of minutes when it comes to special teams duty. An effective way of correcting for those discrepancies is looking at a player's goal and point totals during five-on-five play divided by the number of five-on-five minutes he receives. To that end, Burns has been among the upper echelon of the league in terms of 5v5 scoring efficiency since his move up front. Here's a look at the leaders in 5v5 goals and points per 60 minutes since the start of the shortened 2012-13 season among players who have appeared in at least 500 5v5 minutes over that period:
|Player||5v5 Goals/60||5v5 Points/60|
Only eight players--all of them, with the exception of Chris Kunitz, bona fide superstars--have scored points at a higher rate at 5v5 play over the past two seasons than Burns-as-a-forward has. Only Jonathan Toews, Phil Kessel, Steven Stamkos and James Neal have been more efficient goal-scorers at evens. That's a remarkable feat for anyone but considering Burns is essentially a rookie at the position, the fact that he's scored at a comparable rate to the NHL's most established stars is eye-popping.
Joe Thornton, with whom Burns has been joined at the hip since the conversion, obviously deserves a lot of credit but Burns has been able to take advantage of Thornton's ability to control play and find openings like no one since Jonathan Cheechoo's heyday. It's a symbiotic relationship between those two and that's never more clear than when looking at the difference in San Jose's performance with and without Burns in the lineup. Here's how the Sharks have performed by a variety of measures since the start of last season with Burns in the lineup as a forward compared to when he's either been out of the lineup entirely or in as a defenseman:
|Record||Points %||5v5 Shots For/60||5v5 Goals For/60||Fenwick Close%|
|With Burns as a forward||49-23-4||67.1||33.0||2.48||55.9|
|Without Burns as a forward||17-10-10||59.5||27.9||1.82||50.4|
San Jose generates over five more 5v5 shots and scores two-thirds of an additional goal per 60 minutes with Burns in the lineup as a forward compared to without him. They control nearly 56% of all unblocked shot attempts in score-close 5v5 situations with Burns playing up front but just over half of those when he isn't; that's the difference between being the best possession team in the league (L.A. leads the NHL this season at 56.1%) and being league-average (Ottawa is 15th at 50.6%). Most importantly, the difference in their record improves from being comparable to what the Minnesota Wild currently are when Burns is out to being similar to the Blackhawks when he's in.
Certainly not all of that credit belongs to Burns. Last season, the Sharks ditched possession anchors Douglas Murray and Michal Handzus (in addition to employing a three-pronged attack with Joe Pavelski centering the third line) weeks after moving Burns up front while this season Dan Boyle missed a chunk of the same time Burns did. But a lot of the improvement (especially when it comes to shot generation, as only Alex Ovechkin fires more attempts per minute than Burns) can be directly traced back to the decision a year ago to make Burns a forward.
Considering the evidence, it's hard to declare the experiment (if it can even be called that anymore) anything other than a success. Ironically, the one area in which Burns has struggled since the switch (and the reason his counting stats aren't gaudier) is the one area in which he still (sometimes) plays as a defenseman: the power play. Burns has just one goal and three points in upwards of 111 minutes with the man-advantage this season, which is certainly concerning but doesn't really have anything to do with his role at evens.
The opportunity cost of the switch still looms large in the sense that the Sharks could certainly use a defenseman of Burns' caliber on the back end right now (although, preferably, one that shoots left) but it's also clear that, regardless of their perceived deficiencies on the blueline, San Jose is a better team with Burns at right wing than it ever was with him on defense. And, besides, maybe McLellan's next trick will be turning Antti Niemi into a top-four defenseman.