Skip to main content

Burns dialed in to one position for Sharks

Playoffs perfect showcase for forward-turned-Norris Trophy finalist

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / Director of Editorial

SAN JOSE -- Brent Burns started his youth hockey career as a goalie, was drafted into the NHL as a right wing with scoring potential, and now has a one-in-three shot to win the Norris Trophy as the League's best all-around defenseman.

It is a developmental journey unlike any that has been undertaken in the modern history of the NHL.

"For me getting drafted as a forward, to get [Norris consideration] is really special," said Burns, who was taken by the Minnesota Wild in the first round (No. 20) of the 2003 NHL Draft. "I would be lying if I said different."

Sure, there are forwards that have played defense before, sometimes quite capably. There are also defenseman who can play forward; Winnipeg Jets Dustin Byfuglien jumps to mind.

Video: MTL@SJS: Burns picks the corner on Condon

But none has done it with the skill, or flair, of the San Jose Sharks' No. 1 defenseman. Burns had two assists when the Sharks defeated the Nashville Predators 5-2 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Second Round at SAP Center on Friday. He had eight points, including two goals, against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, and his 10 points are one behind John Tavares of the New York Islanders for the 2016 playoff lead.

When Burns reported to Minnesota, coach Jacques Lemaire saw the skill set that could translate into a successful offensive defenseman. He played each position in Minnesota, sometimes in the same game. He was traded to San Jose in 2011 and the experimentation continued; he played forward, on the top line, and defense at different junctures.

"He's one of those special athletes you can count on one hand that can play forward and defense," said San Jose coach Pete DeBoer, who declared Burns would be a full-time defenseman when he got the job last summer. "Now that he is dialed in on playing one position, you are seeing the benefits of that."

No defenseman had more goals during the 2015-16 regular season than Burns, who scored 27. Only one, Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, had more points (82) than Burns, who finished with 75.

Karlsson and Kings defenseman Drew Doughty are the other two finalists for the Norris Trophy, which will be announced during the NHL Awards Show on June 22.

Video: Practice 4/30: Burns

Paul Martin, who joined the Sharks as a free agent last summer, has served as Burns' defense partner throughout this season. Martin, a proficient two-way defenseman, has been credited for some of the acceleration in Burns' game, but he said his partner is a different player than the stereotype often used to define Burns' game.

Burns, 31, has an outsized personality. He has an attention-grabbing beard and hairdo. He has a sartorial sense shared by very few of his peers. He likes to have fun whenever he is on the ice and wears his emotions, positive or negative, in the open. People often see his game the same way, believing that the flash is its primary defining factor.

Not so, says Martin.

"With Burnsie, he plays the game differently on the back end with how he sees the game and plays the game," Martin said. "He sees something and he just goes for it. He reads, he reacts.

"Sometimes, he takes the game over instead of letting it game kind of come to him."

The results can often be stunning.

"He's a world-class player; he can beat you with his feet, he can beat you with a pass," DeBoer said. "That is what world-class players do."

And Burns is not done. Everyone close to him says there is room for improvement.

Larry Robinson, the director of player development for the Sharks, is in the Hockey Hall of Fame as one of the game's elite defenseman. He spent 17 of his 20 NHL seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and was a cornerstone of their dynasty from 1976-79. Robinson knows a bit about defensemen and how they develop.

Last month, at a fantasy camp run by Wayne Gretzky, Robinson, who joined the Sharks in 2012, was discussing the impact of Burns on the Sharks and said the sky remains the limit.

"I think we have just probably scratched the surface with him," Robinson said. "He's come ahead by leaps and bounds from when I first got here."

View More

The NHL uses cookies, web beacons, and other similar technologies. By using NHL websites or other online services, you consent to the practices described in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, including our Cookie Policy.