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The top 10 position-switch players in hockey history

The late Red Kelly was highly prolific as a defenseman and a forward. What other players made great impacts on either sides of mid-career position changes?

Hockey mourns the loss Hall of Famer Red Kelly after he passed away Thursday at 91. He was a legend of the game, ranked 23rd on The Hockey News’ all-time player list, a member of Canadian Parliament, an eight-time Stanley Cup champion and, perhaps most famously…the most successful position-switch player in history, having made significant impacts at defense and forward.

No one had more success than Kelly shifting from defense to forward, but he’s not the only one to do it. Who are the other top position-switchers in hockey history? Here are 10 names to consider, with a sincere thanks to our resident hockey historian, James Benesh, for helping dig up and rank the position switchers of generations past. James has consulted with The Hockey News on major recent “ranking” projects such as our Top 50 Players of All-time by Franchise and Top 100 Goalies of All-Time.

For the purpose of these ranks, we considered players who made extended, sustained impacts at forward and defense. Sergei Fedorov, for instance, is as talented as any player on this list but made only a brief foray onto the blueline, which is why he slots outside the top 10.

1. RED KELLY

Kelly was a dominant Detroit Red Wings defenseman, earning first-team all-star honors six times in a seven-season stretch from 1950-51 to 1956-57. But he also underwent a remarkable career change, becoming a center in his 30s with the Toronto Maple Leafs. There, he won the last of his four Lady Byng Trophies, finished sixth in NHL scoring in 1960-61 and cracked the top 10 in Hart Trophy voting twice. He won four Cups as a blueliner and four as a forward. He was more dominant on defense but highly effective up front, too. No NHLer has ever been more prolific at two totally different positions.

2. CYCLONE TAYLOR

Part of the Ottawa Senators ‘Silver Seven,’ in the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association, Taylor was so dynamic rushing the puck as a blueliner that he earned the nickname ‘Cyclone.’ By 1913, he converted to a forward/rover and won five scoring titles as a Seattle Millionaire in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, a circuit considered on par with the NHL. Had he played in a later era and piled up official NHL honors, he’d have a case for No. 1 on this list.

3. DIT CLAPPER

Clapper's NHL resume as a position switcher ranks close behind Kelly’s but in reverse. Clapper ranked top-10 in goals four times as a right winger. In 1937-38, his 11th NHL season, he moved to the blueline. Back there, he became a first-team all-star three times and finished top-three in Hart Trophy voting twice. Clapper enjoyed remarkable longevity, becoming the first 20-year NHLer. He actually reached the NHL as a defenseman but was immediately moved to forward as a rookie.

4. MARK HOWE

Howe built most of his Hall-of-Fame resume as one of the NHL’s top defensemen, ranking top-10 in Norris voting eight times in an nine-season stretch from 1979-80 to 1987-88, during which he was runner-up three times. Before his fruitful NHL career, of course, he lit up the WHA playing left wing on a line with his father Gordie and brother Marty. During one WHA season, in which Mark played forward and defense, he made the mid-season all-star team as a forward and the end-of-year all-star squad as a defenseman.

5. EBBIE GOODFELLOW

He was a rock-solid forward, topping out at 25 goals and 48 points in 44 games in 1930-31, when he finished fourth in MVP voting. Goodfellow was born to play defense, though. He blossomed after moving there in 1934-35, winning two Stanley Cups, earning two first-team all-star nods and winning the MVP in 1939-40. If the Norris Trophy existed in his time, he would’ve won it at least once.

6. BABE SIEBERT

The career trajectory is highly similar to Goodfellow’s. Siebert was a good-to-great forward, ranking top-10 in goals and assists twice and points once, but won a Hart Trophy and earned three consecutive first-team all-star selections as a defenseman. That run came in the twilight of his career. Who knows where he’d rank among all-time D-men if he’d played there his whole life?

7. REG NOBLE

A consistent offensive force as a forward, cracking the top 10 in goals and points six times. As a defenseman: solid, physical and workmanlike. He was like the opposite of Brent Burns and Dustin Byfuglien in their transitions.

8. DOUG MOHNS

As Benesh explains it, Mohns had an unbelievably fascinating career in ever-changing roles. He played in the All-Star Game seven times between 1954 and 1972 and for very different reasons depending on the stage of his career: offensive defenseman who once finished top-five in Norris voting; scoring winger who cracked the top 10 once; and defensive defenseman near the end of his career post-expansion.

9. NEIL COLVILLE

The second player to earn all-star status as a forward and defenseman. Colville was one of the NHL’s better scoring forwards before World War II stole him away for three seasons. When he returned, he’d lost a step, so he shifted back to defense, where he earned second-team status in 1947-48.

10. BRENT BURNS

It might be tempting to rank Burns higher. He’s one of the two best offensive defensemen of the past two decades and a Norris Trophy winner who may end up with another before his career is up. During his mid-career foray as a winger, however, he was merely good, nothing special. It’s still a testament to his tremendous talent that he could play both positions, but the players above him on this list were high-level guys in each discipline.

Honorable mentions: Dustin Byfuglien, Jack Marshall, Barney Stanley, Tom Anderson, Bert McCaffrey, Phil Housley, Sergei Fedorov, Jim Roberts, Lindy Ruff, Dale Tallon, Mathieu Dandenault, Lou Nanne, Steve Staios, Ron Greschner, Mark Streit, Sami Kapanen

- With files from James Benesh

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