Andrei Markov, Brent Burns, Dustin Byfuglien, Hockey History, Red Kelly

Best NHL Players To Make the Switch Between Defense & Forward

Forward, defense and goaltending. Those are the three positions in hockey. Forwards and defense are split into left and right sides, while the forwards have a center to play all over the ice. Some players play both the left and right side up front and on the blue line, which is a relatively common thing, and sometimes a team has too many centermen and ends up having to play them on the wing. What doesn’t happen very often is a player switching from forward to defense or vice versa.

There are lots of examples of a player playing their unnatural position in practices, some shifts during a game, and when the team is shorthanded due to injuries. There are also some examples of players playing for a few games, back and forth, and even a complete career change.

Brent Burns

The most common player people think of when talking about this kind of switch is Brent Burns. He was drafted in the first round of the 2003 Draft as a right winger out of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) after earning the league’s Most Improved Player Award. Upon joining the Minnesota Wild, he was given blue line duties by head coach Jacques Lemaire. Burns ended up making a strong transition to the new position, while still taking advantage of his offensive mindset and talents.

Brent Burns - Sharks
Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks, Oct. 9, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Burns emerged as a consistent NHL player after the 2004-05 lockout and posted 16 points in 72 games as a defenseman. Lemaire coached the Wild until the end of the 2008-09 season, and by that time Burns had emerged as a top defenseman for the club. During that season, Lemaire had opted to give Burns more opportunity in his original forward position and was often swapped between positions. After Lamaire and his defensively strong system moved on, Burns had a great next two seasons and finished his final season in Minnesota with 46 points in 80 games before being traded at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

Related: Red Wings’ Top 5 Defensemen of All Time Ranked

The San Jose Sharks acquired Burns and started him on defense, where the majority of his NHL career had been played up to that point. It didn’t take long for them to move him to forward as he finished the 2012-13 season with 20 points in 23 games as a winger. In 2014, he became a full-time defenseman and emerged as one of the best in the league, including a whopping 29 goals and a Norris Trophy in 2016-17 and 83 points in 2018-19.

Red Kelly

Another case of a very famous position swap is Red Kelly. After joining the Detroit Red Wings in 1947, he became a great two-way defenseman with offensive upside. He regularly scored 40-50 points and won the Norris Trophy in 1954. After 13 seasons with the Red Wings where he collected four Stanley Cups, three Lady Byngs, and a Norris, he was traded to the New York Rangers.

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His tenure in New York didn’t last even a day as he and Billy McNeill refused to report to the Rangers club, resulting in the trade being voided. Five days after that deal, the Red Wings acquired Marc Reaume from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for Kelly.

Upon his arrival in Toronto, then-general manager Punch Imlach requested that Kelly move to center and play with Frank Mahovolich as Kelly had some very good offensive skills. Kelly agreed, and the duo ended up playing together and doing very well. He won another Lady Byng and four more Stanley Cups with the Maple Leafs, solidifying his Hall of Fame career and earning a spot on the NHL’s Top 100 Players list.

Dustin Byfuglien

The Chicago Blackhawks drafted Dustin Byfuglien out of the Western Hockey League (WHL) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. The big, bruising defenseman took a few years to get to the NHL but as the team identified a need for a bigger body to play with the rest of the forwards, they put him on the wing. He thrived in this position as he eventually earned a spot on the top line and was a pivotal part of the 2010 playoff run, playing alongside Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the first line. Using his big frame to win puck battles and be a bother in front of the net, there was great chemistry between the trio. In the time between making the club up to the trade to the Atlanta Thrashers, Byfuglien wasn’t scoring very much but his impact was still large. Come playoff time, however, he scored a very respectable 25 points in 39 games.

Winnipeg Jets' Dustin Byfuglien
Winnipeg Jets’ Dustin Byfuglien (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Due to the salary cap, the Blackhawks had to deal Byfuglien and the Thrashers were the lucky ones to land him. While he was successful in the top-six of the Chicago club that just won the Stanley Cup, the Thrashers opted to move him back to his natural defensive position. This was when Byfuglien finally broke out as he recorded 53 points in 80 games from the back end. The rest of his career was spent with the Winnipeg Jets after the Thrashers’ relocation and he continued to be a star defenseman posting 50-plus points five times after the initial trade.

Andrei Markov

There isn’t much history with Andrei Markov’s career as a forward. In his hockey career prior to being drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, he was a centerman for the Khimik Voskresensk in the Russian Superleague (Now known as the Kontinental Hockey League – KHL). His play at center got him drafted in the sixth round, but following the draft, he ended up playing with Dynamo Moscow.

Moscow saw some potential for Markov to succeed as a defenseman and decided to test him out there. His next two seasons, whether it be due to development or the position change, were his two best seasons in Russia. After those two years, he came to North America and played 14 American Hockey League games before getting a shot in the NHL.

Andrei Markov Montreal Canadiens
Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens, 2003 (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

Markov went on to be a lifelong Canadien and have a very successful career. Playing 990 NHL games with 572 points and votes for the Norris Trophy in six seasons, Markov was loved by Canadiens fans. His offensive output combined with his gifted shot-blocking ability made for a very popular player.

Best of the Rest

There are plenty of players who swapped between positions due to injuries. Sergei Fedorov was excellent in his very brief stints on defense and Brendan Shanahan was quoted saying “I’m convinced if Sergei played defense, he could have won a Norris Trophy…he was so talented, so strong” (from ‘Hockey Hall of Fame ceremony one big Red Wings reunion’, Detroit Free Press, Nov. 9, 2015). John Scott also moved around the lineup when injuries struck and was utilized the same way Byfuglien was. Mark Howe is another example of a player who swapped positions.

There are also stories about how players switched prior to being drafted, such as Patrik Laine being a goaltender until he was 12, Wendel Clark being a defenseman in junior and switching to wing, and plenty of others.

While it is relatively uncommon to see players swap positions, it does happen and can be an exciting storyline to follow. This list could go on and on talking about all of the players to make the change, but these are some of the best to do so.

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