As the Sharks move through the young season on this East Coast road trip, I was thinking about something that we’re all witnessing that’s awfully rare at the National Hockey League level. However, in order to relate that properly, I have to venture back in time for a brief story.
Back in the halcyon years of my hockey youth, I used to listen to a lot of New York Rangers games on the radio, and in those days, the Broadway Blueshirts had a player on the roster named Ron “Harry” Harris. Harris, who also was a member of both the WHL’s San Francisco Seals and the NHL’s Oakland Seals earlier in his career, was a journeyman defenseman from Verdun, Quebec who had a mean streak and a rugged playing style that was appreciated by fans in Oakland, Detroit, Atlanta, and New York.
To counter the brusque, bullying style of the Philadelphia Flyers and other clubs in those days, Rangers’ legendary GM/coach Emile Francis decided one day to skate Harris on the right wing. If there was trouble, Harry would put a stop to it, and he often did. It was a rare experiment that worked.
But Harris was the equivalent of a sixth or seventh defenseman for the Rangers back in those days, and as a right wing, he was generally on the fourth line.
Back to the present.
Over the course of his career, Brent Burns has played both right wing and defense in the NHL, and regardless of what position he’s playing, he’s slotted in one of the top two forward lines or the top four defensemen. He is a physical specimen, with tremendous skating ability, great size, a physical presence, and the ability to score.
Whether Burns plays forward or defense, he’s an impact player for his team. While with the Minnesota Wild, Burnzie scored 17 goals as a defenseman in 2010-11. Last season, he scored 22 goals as a right wing, notching a career-high 48 points and finishing 5th on the team’s scoring list while playing on a line with Joe Thornton.
What’s interesting is how rare it really is to see a player excel at both forward and defense in the National Hockey League. On October 11th, we saw an even greater rarity: two such players competing against each other in the same game. At SAP Center on that date, Burns was opposed by Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien, who finished 3rd among defensemen in 2010-11 when he was with the Atlanta Thrashers and who won the Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010. In this game, Byfuglien was back on the wing with the Jets, and as is the case with Burns, he cuts a large swath on the ice with a big presence.
Going back in NHL history, I can think of only two other instances of players who excelled at this high a level at both forward and defense:
When he began his professional career with the Houston Aeros of the WHA, Howe was a winger, and in 6 WHA seasons, he scored 30 or more goals 5 times while playing alongside his father, the legendary Gordie Howe. Moving to Hartford, Philadelphia, and Detroit in the NHL, he converted to defense and broke the 20 goal mark 3 times, scoring a career-best 82 points with the Flyers in 1985-86. Paired with the late Brad McCrimmon, he was regularly at the top of the plus-minus stats in the League.
Howe was selected as an honored member of the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011.
When the family of the late Red Wings owner-president James Norris presented a trophy in his memory to be given to the NHL’s best defenseman, its first winner in 1954 was Leonard “Red” Kelly, who happened to play for Detroit at the time. Kelly distinguished himself for many years as a top blue liner, finishing as Norris Trophy runner up on two more occasions. He may very well have won another one, had Doug Harvey not have been playing at the same time in history.
But when he moved to Toronto in the 1960’s, GM/Coach Punch Imlach decided to convert Kelly into a center. Easily making the transition, Kelly had three 20-goal seasons with the Leafs playing up front.
Kelly was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969. He won a total of 8 Stanley Cups, 4 with Detroit and 4 with Toronto.
Playing defense with the legendary Fern Flaman and forward with Don McKenney in Boston, Mohns was one of the more proficicent users of the slap shot in the 1950’s, but was often lost in the aura surrounding Bobby Hull and “Boom Boom” Geoffrion. He played both forward and defense over a 22-year NHL career. In Chicago, he played wing on the “Scooter Line” with Kenny Wharram and Stan Mikita, and was 9th in NHL scoring in 1966-67. Later in his career, he played for Minnesota, Atlanta, and Washington, and was the very first captain of the Washington Capitals. He wasn’t a Hockey Hall of Famer, but he did play in seven NHL All-Star games, and excelled at both forward and defense over 1,390 regular season and 94 Stanley Cup playoff games.
Burns is back on defense this season, but he’s also at or near the top of his team’s scoring list. He’s on the ice for more minutes, playing 22:02 and 25:08 in the recent back-to-back set of contests at New Jersey and at Madison Square Garden. He’s looking good alongside the promising Mirco Mueller, which bodes well for the Sharks as they skate forward.
Remember, when you watch or listen to Brent Burns’ exploits this season, you’re witnessing some history, but you’re also seeing a unique level of excellence in the National Hockey League. That’s the case, whether he happens to play defense, as he is now, or forward, which he certainly can do with elan.