DETROIT – Nearly a month later, it’s still being referred to as “the experiment.”
Not that that’s much of a surprise. Brent Burns was acquired by the Sharks in the summer of 2011 as the defenseman that was supposed to help a team that made back-to-back Western Conference final appearances get over the proverbial hump, and become a championship club. While that didn’t come close to happening in a disappointing 2011-12 campaign, Burns has transformed the Sharks’ current season after his head coach decided to move him to forward after a couple stints on the injured list.
Todd McLellan still might call it an experiment, but it should be called something else, too – an extraordinary success.
“It energized the team,” McLellan said. “He’s got size, he can shoot the puck. He brought an energy to the group that was contagious. There are a lot of good things about him being up there.”
The numbers bear that out. When Burns was shifted to forward before a game in St. Louis on March 12, the Sharks were scoring just 2.17 goals per game. Only the Nashville Predators had fewer. The team was mired in an epic scoring slump, failing to score more than two goals in regulation for 18 of 19 games.
Burns had a goal in that first game against St. Louis, a 4-2 Sharks loss, and six points in his first four games. The Sharks actually lost three of the four after the move, but the offense was finally showing signs of life, with 11 goals over that span – an explosion, considering what the Sharks had done over the previous six weeks.
Since then, the Sharks are 8-2-1, and all of Burns’ 14 points have come at forward (he played defense on March 30 against Phoenix, when Jason Demers was a late scratch due to injury). While the move kick-started Burns’ game, it also gave a jolt to the rest of the offense. In the 15 games since the switch, the Sharks have scored 2.67 goals per game, exactly half a goal more than they had been scoring up to that point. In the tight-checking and often low scoring games in the Western Conference, that’s often the difference between getting one or two points in the standings.
Burns said he was open to the idea from the start, when he was recovering from a left leg injury that forced him from the lineup in late February for seven games.
“[McLellan] just asked me if I was willing to try, and I never had anything against it," Burns said. "I think I’m a better d-man than forward, but I still think I can help offensively by playing at wing. I don’t really want to play one position over the other, I don’t really care.”
Combined with Joe Pavelski’s move to center – something that would have been unlikely without Burns’ versatility – the Sharks have finally found the offensive depth that had been eluding them since the season began.
“Burnzie going up front and Pavelski going on the third line has balanced things out. That’s probably the biggest reason things have been going well,” Dan Boyle said. “Him going up front is almost like at the trade deadline, where you get a power forward all of a sudden, and then guys kind of fall into place. Our balance has been that much better. He’s been really good up front.”
McLellan said: “It immediately increased the depth of our forwards. It put a wild card into the mix.”
Ironically, had Burns been healthy at the start of the year, the move might never have happened. He missed the first 10 games of the season after having offseason hernia/groin surgery, and didn’t look comfortable when he finally made his season debut on Feb. 9.
Just before he got hurt, in a game in Chicago on Feb. 22, Burns hit a personal season low point when he badly misplayed Brandon Saad’s game-winning shorthanded goal in the third period. McLellan made it known after the game that Burns should have been much more aggressive on the play, which led to a 2-1 Sharks loss.
Burns suffered a left leg injury the next night in Dallas, and when he returned for practice on March 11, McLellan sensed Burns didn’t quite have his skating legs underneath him. Playing him at forward would force him to skate more, and therefore reach his full potential much sooner.
“We put him up front where you can’t necessarily hide players, but where you can skate a little more freely, and have backup around you,” McLellan said. “He got his skating legs quicker that way than on the blue line.”
Burns said: “It definitely helps getting your skating legs, for sure, playing forward.”
Tuesday’s lackluster game in Columbus aside, Burns has been easily noticeable on a nightly basis. He’s one of the team’s faster players when skating in a straight line, and he’s a beast on the forecheck when he's on his game.
“At forward you’re kind of wheeling around, causing chaos,” Burns said. “I think I have to do it to be successful. I have to go to the net, forecheck, and do those things. I’m not a slow-it-down, saucer pass kind of guy.”
Despite all the success both Burns and the Sharks have had lately, McLellan still refuses to declare him a forward for the rest of the year.
“That’s his spot for tonight,” McLellan said on Tuesday morning in Columbus. “It’s an ongoing experiment. I don’t like to paint anyone into a corner. … We have to be fluid, and have the ability to change.”
Burns playing forward isn’t likely to change any time soon.