Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - When San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson traded for Brent Burns in the summer of 2011, he thought he knew what his club was getting.
Burns spent years patrolling the blue line for the Minnesota Wild, and had become sort of a poor man's Shea Weber, a goal-scoring defenseman with size and a nasty physical edge to his game.
Fast forward to the present and you'll find Burns still has the size and edge, only now his skill set is being utilized at the other end of the ice.
Burns had been mildly disappointing with the Sharks before the team had the brilliant idea of moving him from defense to the wing last March. The switch has become permanent, and although Burns is 29 years old and has over 600 NHL games under his belt, he's still growing into his new position.
The Sharks have no shortage of skilled forwards with captain Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture driving the team's success, so it's easy to forget about Burns sometimes. However, Thursday night's game against the rival Anaheim Ducks was not one of those times.
In perhaps the biggest game for the Sharks this season, Burns made certain his presence was felt. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound power forward put his full skill set on display to help San Jose record a 3-2 regulation win over the Ducks. The victory moved the Sharks two points ahead of Anaheim for the top spot in the Pacific Division, putting San Jose in first place for the first time since Dec. 5.
Burns assisted on Thornton's game-tying goal midway through the third period and then delivered the winner with 3:59 left in regulation. He ended the game with five hits and seven shots on goal and was rewarded with the game's First Star following the monster performance.
After the important divisional win, Burns' teammates and coaches heaped praise upon the converted winger.
"It's so easy to play with him," Thornton said of Burns. "He just goes. He's just a beast out there. Nobody can handle his size and his speed. It just forces you to try to keep up with him because he's going so fast. It's great to watch."
While Thornton marveled at Burns' combination of size and speed, Sharks coach Todd McLellan focused on the physical attributes he brings to the table.
"He is a wrecking ball," McLellan said. "He's a one-man wrecking crew out there when he plays that way. His physicality showed up early."
Burns has 20 goals in his first full season as a NHL forward and has added 19 assists to sit fifth on the Sharks with 39 points over 58 games. His plus-28 rating also is the best number among San Jose forwards and is second on the team to defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
The trade for Burns looks good now, but there was a time when it appeared to be a bust. Not only did the Sharks give up Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and a first-round pick to land Burns and a second-round selection, the club handed the former blueliner a five-year, $28.8 million extension before he played a single game in San Jose.
When Burns failed to make a significant impact from the back end, the investment seemed like a boondoggle. In fact, before moving to wing it could be argued that Burns was known more for his bushy beard than his on-ice contributions. A year into the experiment, however, and it seems the position change has given Burns new life in San Jose.
The only question now is how far can San Jose go with Burns playing the "wrecking ball" on offense?
The next step for Burns is to show he can deliver in the playoffs, something that's been a problem for many San Jose players over the years. He only had two goals and two assists in 11 postseason tilts last spring when the Sharks were eliminated by Los Angeles in seven games during the second round.
If the Sharks fail to win the division the club could wind up facing the defensive-minded Kings again in the opening round of the 2014 playoffs. Los Angeles is currently third in the Pacific behind Anaheim and the new postseason format will feature an opening-round series between the second- and third-place clubs in each division.
Provided he continues to play the way he did on Thursday, Burns could be a positive factor in a potential series against the Kings, or any other team for that matter. He has the ability to draw attention away from San Jose's high- profile forwards and make the Sharks an even bigger matchup problem then they already were.
The biggest problem facing San Jose in the postseason seems to be the club's own past. The Sharks have been a regular-season force over the past decade but have never been able to get past the Western Conference finals. Although Burns was unable to make a difference as a defenseman with the Sharks, perhaps, his new role holds the key to getting San Jose deeper into the postseason.
Although Burns is still learning his new position, Wilson said in June that being new to the position wasn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, San Jose's GM seems to believe Burns' rawness as a forward makes him even tougher to play against.
"I don't know how you defend against him because he doesn't know what he's doing, so how do they know?" Wilson said.
Big, fast, nasty and unpredictable is a unique blend of skills to offer for any team. If Burns can bring those attributes to the ice on a routine basis, maybe he is the answer the Sharks have been looking for after all.