NHL defencemen relish different role

Ian White of the Toronto Maple Leafs is just happy to be playing on a nightly basis, whether it's at his natural position on defence or at right wing on the NHL team's fourth line.

Playing new position means more ice time, learning on job for White, Meech, others

Maple Leafs' Ian White, front, along with good friend and fellow defenceman Derek Meech (14) of the Detroit Red Wings, each have had stints this season playing forward. ((Jerry S. Mendoza/Associated Press))

It's approaching game time in Raleigh, N.C., and defenceman Ian White and his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates are preparing to take aim at a third consecutive victory.

About 15 minutes before warm-up, Maple Leafs assistant coach Tim Hunter delivers the good news to White: he's about to make his season debut against the Carolina Hurricanes after sitting out the first 11 games as a healthy scratch.

But there's a catch. With six healthy defencemen ahead of him, White will patrol right wing for the first time in his 169-game National Hockey League career.

"It actually went pretty well. I was surprised at how smooth the transition was," said White, recalling his one-goal, 12-minute performance in a 6-4 Maple Leafs on Nov. 2.

White, 24, is one of the subjects in the second of a two-part series focusing on the increasing rate of NHL defencemen playing forward.

Part 1 examined how the NHL salary cap and roster limitations are forcing teams to developing certain players at multiple positions.

Through Dec. 15, no fewer than 15 defencemen across the league had played at least one game at forward, mostly on the fourth unit.

Previous to this season, White last played a shift at forward in junior with the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League and before that a couple of shifts in triple-A midget.

After playing 81 of 82 regular-season games a year ago, he was just happy to be playing again, no matter the position.

The native of Steinbach, Man., followed up his effort in Carolina by recording a point in six of the next seven contests before returning to the blue-line on Nov. 17 against Boston.

"I saw it as a challenge," said White of playing the wing. "I'd like to play 41 games at forward and 41 on defence."

Wilson told CBCSports.ca he enjoyed learning the tendencies of NHL forwards and expanding his knowledge of the game.

'Opened door to whole new world'

"It opened the door to a whole new world," said White, who is playing close to 23 minutes a game on the blue-line. "Just experiencing being part of every offensive rush and being able to dump the puck in, forecheck and hit guys. It's just a different part of the game."

White's longtime friend, Derek Meech, first experimented patrolling left wing last season with the Detroit Red Wings, playing five games.

This season, the 24-year-old has endured long stretches of inactivity as the seventh defenceman behind a healthy starting six in Detroit. Still, Meech has taken to his part-time role as a forward and fared well.

"It's tough to get in the lineup here every night, so any way I can get in and contribute to some wins is fine with me," said Meech. He scored his first NHL goal on Nov. 4 against Vancouver while playing the wing and has collected three points in 15 games this season.

Islanders' Mark Streit, left, is much happier these days playing on the blue-line for the Islanders rather than forward in Montreal, where "I knew I wasn't going to get a chance to play defence on a regular basis." ((Graham Hughes/Canadian Press))

Despite the fact the third-year NHLer has only appeared in half of Detroit's games this season, Meech has relished playing a new role and learning where to be on the ice at various points in a game.

"Every team has to have four lines that are going to contribute," said Meech, who has recently skated alongside veteran fourth-liners Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby. "To go out there and give the top line rest is very important."

Playing up front has also allowed the Winnipeg native to better anticipate where opposing forwards position themselves in the offensive zone.

So what has been the biggest challenge for Meech? Covering the opposition point, the most foreign thing for someone trained as a defenceman.

"One of the biggest adjustments is getting the puck on the half wall [along the boards at the hashmarks], making a play and not turning it over," he said. "And also having to worry about the defencemen coming down and trying to [hit] you. You grow to respect the job forwards do."

Switching positions not for everyone

Playing out of position isn't for everyone, however, said White, who figures 60 to 70 per cent of rearguards would say they prefer not to play forward.

Mark Streit is one of them.

It's one of the reasons he chose to leave the Montreal Canadiens as a free agent in the summer to join the New York Islanders for five years at $4.1 million US.

Streit, 31, played the point on the NHL's No. 1 power play last season but played only a handful of games on defence for the Canadiens and felt he wasn't accorded enough respect.

In the 2006-07 season, Streit spent time on each of the team's four forward lines, scored 10 goals and set an NHL record for Swiss-trained players with 36 points.

"I knew I wasn't going to get a chance to play defence on a regular basis," Streit told the Gazette newspaper in Montreal last month. "I knew in Montreal I wouldn't go anywhere. I would have the same [dual] role for the next how many years."

In 31 games with New York, Streit leads all Islanders defencemen with 24 points and is 12th in ice time among NHL blue-liners, averaging 25 minutes 12 seconds.

In Minnesota, Brent Burns's ability to play more than one position not only has increased his value to the Wild, but has given head coach Jacques Lemaire options.

From Oct. 30 to Nov. 16, the six-foot-five, 220-pound Burns filled in for top right-winger Marian Gaborik and posted three goals and eight points in 16 games.

But with the return of Gaborik on Wednesday, the 23-year-old Burns is back anchoring the Wild defence.

"As much as he is an option up front, we're still losing a really good option on defence. When he's playing defence we're a better team," Minnesota general manager Doug Risebrough told CBCSports.ca of Burns, a power forward in junior with the Ontario Hockey League's Brampton Battalion.

"I think it's very unusual that you're going to take one of your top two defencemen or a top-six forward and play them out of position. But I think there is legitimacy to saying a role-type player who can play both positions could have some advantages."