Doug Wilson’s mailbox should be overflowing with apology letters right now. As the Sharks struggled through a miserable scoring drought last month, many among the teal-clad faithful insisted that he blow up the team’s core nucleus.
But the team didn’t need to part ways with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau or Dan Boyle to surge up the Western Conference standings. The missing piece was already on the bench; he just had to switch spots.
The move that saved the Sharks’ season wasn’t a blockbuster trade at the deadline; instead the credit goes to Todd McLellan and his bold decision to convert All-Star defenseman Brent Burns into a wrecking-ball forward, which re-energized the team’s top line.
Prior to Burns’ move to forward March 12, the Sharks (23-13-7) had scored more than two goals only twice in 17 games (4-7-6) and their grip on a playoff spot was quickly slipping away.
The Sharks lost to the St. Louis Blues in Burns’ debut on the right wing, but he left an impression, blasting a one-timer past goalie Jake Allen and wreaking havoc nearly every time he stepped onto the ice. Burns picked up a goal and an assist in his second game on the front line, a 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings, and the Sharks haven’t looked back since. In 19 games at forward, Burns has collected 17 points while producing an even zero in the plus-minus department. Most importantly, the Sharks are 12-6-1 since the change and battling for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs with only five games to play.
By swapping Burns out to forward, the Sharks filled a glaring need for a physical power forward and they didn’t sacrifice any finesse in the process. At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, Burns is a menace for defenses on the forecheck, throwing his body around with reckless abandon, creating space that allows Thornton to demonstrate why he is considered one of the best playmakers of his generation.
The criticism against the Sharks, of course, is always that they’re soft; talented, skilled and capable of producing highlight-reel goals, but unwilling to go to the hard places to pick up the cuts and bruises required to hoist the cup in June.
But no one can press these charges against Burns, who now makes his living by working the corners, protecting the puck against the wall and driving to the blue paint, where he pounces on rebounds and creates disorder in opponents’ defensive zones.
Burns’ quick adaptation isn’t surprising. He played forward with the Brampton Battalion during his junior hockey career in the Ontario Hockey League and was good enough to earn an invitation to play with Team Canada at the 2004 World Junior Hockey championships. In hindsight, it isn’t shocking that McLellan pulled the trigger on the move since he initially helped to convert Burns into a defenseman when he was coaching in the Minnesota Wild’s farm system eight years ago.
With Burns up front, the Sharks are suddenly a gritty team with plenty of scoring touch, a huge turnaround from a month ago. As Wilson will attest, sometimes the most earth-shaking moves are produced with nothing more than a subtle shift.
Paul Gackle is a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.