In hockey, much like in most other team sports, a team won’t work cohesively unless they stick to their positions as defined by their club’s system. It’s so important that everyone buys in, because if someone goes astray then the whole unit suffers.
Learning different positions within the sport is akin to learning a whole new game. That’s why when someone played a particular position growing up (be it forward, defense, or goal), they rarely change positions throughout their careers.
There are a few rare players whose talents transcend position. Sometimes a defenseman is so naturally offensively gifted that he could easily have played forward and still excelled. Sometimes, a forward's defensive instincts are so good that he could have been a great D-man. And let’s not forget the strong skating/shooting goalies throughout history.
Today’s list celebrates the players in history who either were good enough to play multiple positions, or would have perhaps been even better suited at a different position. Some of these players are already in the Hall of Fame, and some will never get there, so you’ll find that you don’t necessarily have to be great to make the cut here. Enjoy:
15 Jere Lehtinen
Jere Lehtinen is a three-time Selke Trophy winner, so it’s no secret that he is a defensive stud. What’s even more impressive is that Lehtinen is a winger; most reigning Selke winners and candidates in history (Pavel Datsyuk, Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron, etc.) were centers. Lehtinen is an anomaly in this regard.
To be such a defensively-aware winger, the argument could be made that Lehtinen would have had just as good of a career had he been a defenseman. It’s not that he was a slouch when it came to producing points; he recorded 514 points in 875 career games, solid second-line forward numbers.
The stat that truly stands out is his career plus/minus of plus-176. There was only one season in his 14-year career in which he was a minus player, and that was his final season (2009-10). He played his whole career in Dallas, and he helped the Stars grab the franchise’s only Cup in 1999. If he played defense he of course wouldn’t have won all those Selkes, but he’d be a capable NHL player nonetheless.
14 Rob Blake
Rob Blake spent his entire career as one of the NHL’s elite scoring defensemen. In his 1,270 game career that saw him spend time in L.A. (two stints), Colorado and San Jose, the power play specialist scored 777 points—nearly half of which were recorded with the man advantage (379). Of his 240 career goals, 136 of them were scored on the power play.
It’s not like Blake’s defensive game was inadequate, but offense was certainly the reason he was such an effective player. He was a big guy (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) with solid skating ability, so it’s likely that he could have had a successful career as a power forward as well.
Despite being such an elite defenseman throughout his career, Blake was still a minus player in the end, finishing with a minus-4 rating. That can largely be blamed on a few rough seasons on a bad L.A. team toward the end of his career, as he went minus-45 over two seasons with the Kings from 2006 to 2008.
13 Marc-Andre Bergeron
I’ll be the first to admit that Marc-Andre Bergeron doesn’t really fit in on this list, as he’s easily the least accomplished and least successful player here. A case can be made that the other, more successful Bergeron (Patrice) belongs on this list instead, but I like to go crazy sometimes.
M.A. Bergeron was always an interesting player to watch. There’s no question that he struggled mightily at NHL defense, but his offensive skills were what helped him play in the world’s greatest hockey league for as long as he did (490 games; not a bad career at all, really).
His defensive liabilities eventually pushed him out of the NHL and sent him packing for Europe, but I would be willing to bet he would have been a better winger. He has decent scoring sense and isn’t all that big, and his skating was often a problem on D as well. Wingers don’t have to skate as much as defensemen, so the move makes sense.
12 Dustin Byfuglien
Dustin Byfuglien is currently a defenseman for the Winnipeg Jets, and his career did start with him out manning the point. However, the Blackhawks moved the hulking body to forward during their development of him, and the experiment proved to be pretty successful, which is why I know he belongs on this list.
Yes, Byfuglien is currently one of the league’s elite offensive defensemen, but he’s not really a top-tier defenseman in the NHL. He’s a career minus-37, having played only three seasons as a plus-player since starting in the league as a fresh-faced rookie in 2005-06.
Byfuglien is a Stanley cup Champion as well, and I don’t have to point out that he won that Cup playing forward, not defense. Sure, he was a depth player on a very good Chicago team, but opposing goalies remember what a nightmare it was to have big Buff parked in front of you when the Hawks were pressing.
11 Erik Karlsson
There is no other defenseman in the NHL today who compares to Erik Karlsson when it comes to offensive production. He scored 82 points last season, marking the first time a defenseman cracked the 80 point barrier since one Nicklas Lidstrom did in 2005-06.
Again, this isn’t to say that Karlsson would be a better forward than he is a defenseman, but when you consider how strong his offensive instincts are, there’s really no denying that he’d likely be among the league’s top-producing forwards. Heck, he’s already more productive than 99% of the league from the blue line.
Look for Karlsson to be relied upon heavily by the Swedes next month at the World Cup of Hockey. Maybe they’ll try him at forward for a few shifts? Well, they probably actually won’t, but there’s always a chance and I don't think it would be an unmitigated disaster if they did it.
10 Paul Coffey
Paul Coffey holds many offensive records for a defenseman, which is probably why it’s not a huge surprise to see his name on this list. Coffey has the second most points of all defensemen behind only Ray Bourque, and he is second in all time points for a defenseman, only to Bobby Orr.
Coffey also came ever so close to being the first and only defenseman in history to notch 50 goals when he reached 48 in 1985-86. With numbers that ridiculous from the back end, it’s pretty easy to see that Coffey would have been a more than adequate forward. He put up better numbers than most forwards ever dream of.
The reason Coffey would be able to play forward is because of his superb skating skills. Much like most players you’ll find on this list, Coffey was a smooth and effortless skater, and I still believe that’s the most important skill in hockey.
9 Phil Housley
The highest-scoring American defenseman of all time makes an appearance here on the list, and deservedly so. Unlike Coffey, Housley played on bad-to-mediocre teams throughout his entire career, so he never really enjoyed the success that others on this list have.
Housley was never a true stalwart on D, mind you, which is why he’s here on our list. He is actually one of the entries that I could argue would have been better had he played a different position (in this case, a forward). If you look at a list of the top point-producing defensemen ever, Housley is the only one in the top 15 who owns a career minus-rating.
Yes, the teams he played on were generally poor, but to put up that many points yet not be a plus player still points to some defensive liabilities (not ideal for a defender). When you’re minus-53 but managed to score 1,232 points in your career, you were probably doing something wrong on the defensive side of things.
8 Justin Schultz
To this day I do not understand why the Oilers didn’t try this experiment with Justin Schultz. Things were going so poorly for Schultz and the Oilers for pretty much the entire time he was there, what could it have hurt to try him at forward for a few games?
That being said, the Oilers struggled in their development of Schultz every step of the way, so it’s not surprising they didn’t try this somewhat-obvious move. Schultz’s offensive abilities are far superior to his defensive abilities, yet the Oilers continuously deployed Schultz in a top-pairing role.
Who knows what would have happened if they tried that, but Schultz is probably not too choked about how things worked out for him in the end. He was properly deployed upon his arrival in Pittsburgh (as a 6th-7th defenseman who plays some power play minutes), and he’s now the proud owner of a Stanley Cup ring.
7 Carey Price
Most people will probably think this is all just speculation, but if you’ve seen Carey Price skate and shoot the puck in practice then you know it’s probably true that Price could maybe be an NHL forward. Just check out this video here, from the NHL’s website.
No, it’s not like that video shows Price really exerting himself, but you can tell that he has the soft hands of a finesse forward by the way he’s handling the puck, and he fires the biscuit into the cage a few times at decent speeds—and again, he’s not exerting himself at all.
It’s tough to argue that Price would be BETTER as a forward (he’s one year removed from being crowned league MVP, and he didn’t challenge for the repeat last year simply because he was inured). However, I bet he could be a very serviceable forward, and with his knowledge of goaltending already, he’d probably be pretty adept at finding the cage with the best of them.
6 Bob Gainey
The Frank J. Selke trophy has been awarded 38 times since its inception in 1978, and a winger has won the trophy just 11 times (with three being the previously listed Jere Lehtinen). Bob Gainey was another winger to take home the award multiple times, but he managed the feat four times (the first four years it was awarded, in fact).
Gainey, a Montreal Canadiens legend, was one of the toughest forwards to play against as an opposing forward. Throughout the most-recent Canadiens’ dynasty (the late 1970s), Gainey was pretty much deployed to shadow opposing team’s top players, and he would shut them down more often than not.
Gainey’s career speaks for itself, really. He played 1,160 NHL games, all in Montreal, and he collected 502 points along the way. In addition to his four Selkes, he also has a Conn Smythe for his performance in the 1979 playoffs. Gainey was so strong defensively that he could have definitely been an adequate NHL defender.
5 Martin Brodeur
Whenever you ask a goalie what made Martin Brodeur so great, they usually will respond that it all had to do with two skills: skating and puck handling. Brodeur was so adept at puck handling that the trapezoid rule—introduced after the 2005 lockout—was playfully dubbed “The Brodeur Rule.”
Since having Brodeur in your net was almost like having a third defenseman out there, there’s no reason to think that Brodeur couldn’t have played defense at an elite level. His sublime skating mixed with his incredible ability to put a long stretch pass right on a teammate's tape 125 feet down the ice make me believe it’s true.
I’m not saying that the winningest goalie of all time should have played defense instead. Brodeur obviously made the right career choice here. His three Stanley Cup rings, two Olympic Gold Medals, and four Vezina trophies all attest to the fact that Brodeur made the right call.
4 Larry Murphy
One of the greatest offensive defenseman of all time is often overlooked for some reason, but Larry Murphy was a pretty consistent producer from the point in all his years in the NHL. He notched 1,216 points in his career, fifth most among defensemen all time. With numbers like that, he could have played forward and likely produced at a similar or greater level.
I often wonder why Murphy is never in the conversation as one of the greatest defensemen ever. He won four Stanley Cups in his career (two with the Penguins and two with the Red Wings), so it’s not like he was an unaccomplished player. The Norris Trophy did elude him, however.
Murphy wouldn’t necessarily be better suited as a forward, but I’m confident in saying I think that he would excel at the position. You don’t score over 1,000 points from the blue line without elite offensive ability.
3 Brent Burns
This entry isn’t exactly speculation, as Brent Burns has been deployed as a forward in the past, and it’s generally worked out well. Sure, he just had his most prolific offensive season from the blue line in San Jose, but the forward experiments worked out so well that Burns couldn’t be left off this list.
Burns most recently played forward in 2013-14, under then-head coach Todd McLellan. According to NHL.com, McLellan had tried the move out in Minnesota when he coached Burns on their farm team. McLellan knew that it worked, and San Jose had a run of injuries up front, so it only made sense to the head coach to try it.
Burns had quite a stretch of solid play on Joe Thornton’s wing that season, notching 17 goals and 34 points in a 37 game stretch. That’s top-unit numbers, and although Burns has also proven adequate as a top-pairing defenseman, he could also be a good first line forward in this league.
2 Dave Babych
Dave Babych will always be remembered for his glorious moustache, and I’m not here to try and change that. Just one look at that thing and I’m mesmerized by it; indeed, when the Babych ‘stache is around, time stands still and nothing else matters.
Babych was a journeyman NHL defenseman who found his way into 1,195 games, and he scored an impressive 723 points. What’s unimpressive is his career plus/minus rating of minus-223. Yes, you read that right and that’s not a typo (unless of course it is a typo, as I wouldn’t know it because then it would be a typo).
Sure, Babych didn’t play for a lot of great teams. Indeed he played for some notoriously bad ones, like the Winnipeg Jets of the early 1980s. Even on those squads, however, he’d often lead the team in the race for the Green Jacket, including in the 1980-81 season where he registered a disturbingly bad rating of minus-61. Perhaps Babych and his sweet ‘stache would have been best suited for forward work.
1 Bobby Orr
Again, this is a list of players who could have played a different position; not necessarily should. Bobby Orr is one of the best—if not THE best—defenseman of all time, and therefore it would be asinine to suggest that he should have played forward. But there’s no doubt in my mind that he’d be able to do it, and do it well.
Contrarily, all you need to do is look at the numbers Bobby Orr was able to put up as a defenseman, and then just imagine how crazy they could have been if he were a forward. In a career that was limited to just 657 games, Orr put up an incredible 915 points (by far the highest point-per-game rate of any defenseman in history).
Even more impressive is his career plus/minus rating of plus-597. That’s second all-time, but first all time is Habs legend Larry Robinson and he played in 727 more games, all for a dynasty-level Montreal Canadiens team.