Versatility makes a comeback in NHL
With a salary cap and limited rosters, teams value the swing man
When Doug Risebrough stood at the podium at the 2003 NHL entry draft and used the 20th pick overall to select Brent Burns, the Minnesota Wild general manager believed he had a power forward for years to come.
"In my mind, we drafted him as a forward and found out later he played defence growing up," Risebrough told CBCSports.ca. "[Wild head coach] Jacques [Lemaire] thought he could be a good defenceman, because he liked his size, he liked his skating, he liked his range, he liked his defensive instincts.
"It was the next season that we started to think about playing him [on defence] regularly. We thought it would be the best place for him to develop."
Lemaire and Risebrough then watched Burns establish Wild records for a defencemen by scoring 15 goals and 43 points last season, his third full NHL campaign. The native of Ajax, Ont., was also named the top defenceman at the 2008 world hockey championship in Halifax and Quebec City.
But there was the six-foot-five, 220-pound Burns back on the wing from Oct. 30 to Dec. 17, subbing for Minnesota's best forward, the oft-injured Marian Gaborik.
Through Dec. 15, the 23-year-old Burns was one of 15 NHL defencemen who had played forward at least once this season, a group that also includes Ottawa's Christoph Schubert, Toronto's Ian White and the Edmonton Oilers' tandem of Ladislav Smith and Jason Strudwick.
In Part 1 of a two-part series, CBCSports.ca examines how the NHL salary cap and roster limitations are forcing teams to developing certain players at multiple positions.
Playing multiple positions was common in the 1950s and '60s, said Risebrough, who remembered converted defenceman Leonard Patrick "Red" Kelly turning Frank Mahovlich into a great goal scorer as a centre with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"In those days, they [switched positions] because they had to," said Risebrough, a forward with the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames from 1974 to 1987. "Today, you're going to have to convince the [multi-million dollar] player."
With NHL rosters limited to 23 players nowadays, clubs feel the need for multi-positional athletes, or a "swing man," particularly those approaching the league's $56.7 million US salary cap. Teams take a hit against the cap each time they summon a player from the minor leagues.
The Detroit Red Wings stood within $2 million of the cap at the start of this season, leaving GM Ken Holland with little manoeuvrability, so promising Derek Meech stayed on as a seventh defenceman.
However, staring at a Red Wings defence corps that is both deep in numbers and healthy has meant stretches of inactivity for the 24-year-old. Still, Meech has taken to his part-time role as a left-winger, and fared well.
Tough to crack lineup
"Last year I was put at forward in practice a couple of times to fill some spots and ended up playing five games there," the former American Hockey League all-star defenceman told CBCSports.ca. "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."
It's not an ideal situation for Holland, who lost promising defenceman Kyle Quincey on waivers to the Los Angeles Kings earlier this season.
But with NHL players eligible for unrestricted free agency at age 27 and having to clear waivers after their third year of professional hockey, having the sophomore Meech become a more versatile player is one way for Holland to hang on to an asset.
"No. 1, it is cap-related," said Holland. "No. 2, it's an opportunity to get a young player, even if it's in a different role, on the ice. It doesn't make a lot of sense that he's here day after day after day practising, and all of a sudden we have an injury at left wing, and we bring up a guy from the minors. We're talking about a [fourth-line] guy that's going to play six to eight minutes [a game].
"Derek is mature, he understands his role. He knows we like him as a defenceman. We just don't have any injuries [to our defence]."
On Nov. 20, Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish sought more competitiveness from his players and inserted Smid alongside Kyle Brodziak and Marc Pouliot on the fourth line.
The 22-year-old Czech, who hadn't masqueraded as a forward since Grade 3, had just returned to the lineup from a concussion.
"It's a creative way to change your roster and add a different look," said Edmonton GM Steve Tambellini of the Smid move.
The former Vancouver Canucks assistant GM thinks the expanded skill set of today's athlete outweighs many of the potential risks of shifting players back and forth from defence to forward.
"What defencemen looked like maybe 20 years ago to what a defenceman looks like now, there's more mobility and probably a higher skill level," Tambellini said.
"With the game being opened up and a lack of obstruction, defencemen have to be able to move like a forward."
Following the NHL lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, there was a greater emphasis on speed that resulted in many teams opting for smaller, more mobile defencemen compared to years past.
Meech strengthens Wings' 4th line
In Detroit's case, having the five-foot-11, 195-pound Meech skating alongside Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper probably has made the Red Wings' fourth unit stronger defensively.
"The difference in ability between the fourth-liners 20 years ago and the first-liners was bigger than it is now," said Holland, a former NHL goaltender. "If you're a defenceman and you can skate and you can think, why can't you play on the fourth line?"
Holland cautioned, however, that GMs can ruin a player if they're asked to play a number of positions at a young age.
"If it's a 21-year-old that you're shuffling around, then there are risks," he said. "It's the mental part of the game that I worry about. It's the confidence level.
"Once a player is 24, 25, 26, and he's played some pro, I don't think it's as big of an issue."
Curt Fraser, head coach of the Red Wings' minor-league affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich., has a number of defencemen that could play the forward position, but said AHL teams don't possess the depth on the blue-line to experiment.
Priority No. 1 is developing those players into good defencemen, so they're ready if the Red Wings come calling, added the former bench boss of the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers.
For Risebrough, it was only Burns's willingness and open-mindedness that convinced him to move the star defenceman out of position.
"I don't think you can do it with people who are still trying to learn the game or gain confidence," said Risebrough. "Brent just wants to pitch in, he's a team guy.
"Touching him on the shoulder and saying, 'Hey, can you play defence?" He's not second-guessing it, he's not thinking about it a long time. He's just saying, 'Yeah, I can do that.'"
It's an attitude that appears to be gaining steam across the NHL.
In Part 2, White and Meech share their experiences playing forward.