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San Jose's grand experiment

Jets, Byfuglien can gain inspiration from Sharks moving Burns to forward

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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Stop us if this sounds familiar.

An NHL team with a hulking 6-5 defenceman decides to try a bold experiment and convert him into a forward.

The Winnipeg Jets and Dustin Byfuglien? Yes, them too, but today's story is about the San Jose Sharks and the unmitigated success that's been their decision to turn Brent Burns, a 10-year NHL veteran, from a defenceman into a forward.

Consider: In his first full NHL season at forward -- the Sharks first converted Burns last March when a forward went down during practice -- the 28-year-old native of Ajax, Ont., has 29 points, including 14 goals, in 37 games playing with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski on what has been San Jose's most productive line.

Getting better

And the line has been getting better as the season unfolds. In the 15 games since Dec. 21, the Pavelski-Thornton-Burns line has recorded an eye-popping 48 points, including 20 goals, with Burns chipping in 13 of those points, including five goals.

Now, it doesn't hurt that Burns is playing with a couple of the top forwards in the NHL in Pavelski and Thornton.

But still, it's hard not to look at the Burns experiment in San Jose and wonder if Byfuglien could morph into a similarly explosive offensive contributor on the wing in Winnipeg.

The early results would certainly suggest the potential is there. In five games at forward heading into Thursday night, Byfuglien had one goal and three assists.

If there's one big difference between the two experiments, however, it might be that Burns jumped at the chance to play forward, while Byfuglien has made it clear in his few public comments about the switch that he is lukewarm to the idea.

Burns reiterated he's loving his new role, which he said is decidedly less pressure packed than being a defenceman in the NHL.

"At forward, we like to joke you just turn your brain off and your legs on," he said with a laugh. "You just skate around like meat. Our line, we talk about 'Just hunt.' It kind of makes the game a little easier. Obviously it's not just that, but if you're doing that, other things will happen...

"There's a lot of adjustments in the game," Burns continued. "I think speed, turning, getting scoring chances -- it's a totally different mindset. The good thing is for me -- and I'm sure Buff is finding the same thing -- you get that new excitement coming to the rink every day. It's something new -- you almost lose all that stress. If you screw up, you can just say, 'Hey, I haven't done it for a long time.'

The parallels between Burns and Byfuglien don't end with their position switch or their hulking size -- Burns is 6-5, 230, while Byfuglien is 6-5, 265.

Like Byfuglien, who played forward for Chicago during a memorable Stanley Cup run in 2009, Burns also wasn't a complete stranger to playing forward when Sharks head coach Todd McLellan asked him to give it a go last season.

Burns was drafted as a forward by Minnesota, after all, and was talented enough at that position he played for Canada at the world juniors on a line with future NHL stars Ryan Getzlaf and Jeff Carter.

It wasn't until after Burns came to the NHL that Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire converted him into a defenceman.

And then there's this weird parallel between Burns and Byfuglien -- Burns came to San Jose in 2011 via a trade with the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and a first-rounder in the 2012 draft. Setoguchi, in turn, was shipped off last summer to the Jets, where he's playing on a line with, you guessed it, Byfuglien and Olli Jokinen.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice was asked if the success the Sharks have had with Burns at forward could be a model for Winnipeg's experiment with Byfuglien at forward, which Thursday night was in its sixth straight game?

"(Burns) has been just a brilliant player to watch. I remember him in Minnesota, thinking I didn't know if he was even playing defence because he was up the ice so much," Maurice said. "There's not an answer to that speed, especially coming off the back end. A special player.

"The difference (with Byfuglien) is there was never a question if he could (play forward) in the National Hockey League because he's got a Stanley Cup ring that says he could. So there wasn't nearly the innovation that maybe it took to move Burns to the front. For us, it was, 'He's done it,' so it was a lot easier I think."

McLellan said he was careful how he framed his sales pitch to Burns when he asked him to move to forward.

"It was an honest sell," said McLellan. "I think if you approach a player with a gimmick or you're not very clear why you're doing it, you'll have a tough time.

"With Brent, it wasn't that tough because of our past relationship and the fact we'd experimented with (Burns at forward) in the minors. There was a trust factor between the two of us.

"And sometimes, when you go on a line with Joe Thornton, it's a bit of reward also. So he was OK with that and he's been pretty good ever since." Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2014 C4

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