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DUNLEAVY: A look at the Hart Trophy race

Dan Dunleavy shares his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL

by Dan Dunleavy @dan_dunleavy /

Interesting conversations are being had around the NHL now in regards to the Hart Trophy. On our very own round table on MSG before the game in San Jose, we talked about whether or not we felt Sharks defenseman Brent Burns had a shot at the MVP award, which is rarely won by defensemen.

My answer was "yes" and for a couple of reasons. Since our time on the show is limited before puck drop, let me now take time to expand on why I think Brent Burns is the "most valuable player to his team."

First off, let's establish the realities of Burns' chances of winning. If history is our teacher, his chances are slim, despite the lights-out season he is having. The last defenseman to win the Hart Trophy was then-St. Louis Blues defender and nasty, nasty presence Chris Pronger in 1999-2000. Before that, you have to back track all the way to 197-72 when Bobby Orr won the Hart for the third straight season. 

So it's a rarity. Now let's move ahead to the 2016-17 version of Brent Burns. According to his own coaches, he is one of the most determined players when it comes to finding ways to be better at his craft, to be the best at it. Looks to me like he is succeeding when you consider his game is not just about being a forward who can score or a defender who be a presence in his own zone. 

Burns, in the words of Sabres coach Dan Bylsma this week, is a unique player in today's NHL. He literally does it all, a "rover" if you will. A forward one moment, a defender the next. 

A shot taking machine is the former Brampton Battalion Ontario Hockey League junior. With those shots have come the points. As we held our discussion in San Jose on Tuesday night, Burns was five points back of the league leaders. 

Not only can Brent be an offensive presence for himself, but he is able to open things up so much for his forwards down low when he occupies the point. If the forwards do not come out to challenge Burns, the shot is going to happen and a tip by the likes of Joe Pavelski is also likely to happen. Good luck goalies.

If the forward pressures the point, Burns has such a knack for making the slightest of moves as you move forward on him and suddenly he is inside you for - guess what? - the same shot you thought you were preventing when you decided to cover. 

Burns' plus/minus is at or around plus-25 as I write this, tied for 10th-best in the NHL. Sure the Sharks have a good offensive team, but you still have to work at the other end to earn plus numbers by getting the puck out of you own zone and headed up ice more often than messing around in your own end. 

Brent literally is a threat from his position on the back end as soon as he touches the puck.

So yes, forwards Patrick Kane, Connor McDavid and even Brad Marchand are having better seasons production-wise by a couple points at the moment, and yes, all three work well in their own end to get the puck. But I still say Burns, who seemingly is always on the attack and is also the first back to retrieve the dump-ins by the opposition when he is on the ice. 

Yes, Paul Martin is a great compliment, but because of the stability Martin provides, it allows Burns to -in my mind - be a Hart Trophy candidate with his own style of play. 

This discussion is not about age or veteran-compared-to-rookie status or future predictions for me. It's about who would you pick to start building your team with today if time stood still? How many players like Brent Burns are out there? Well, we began this blog by pointing out you have to go back 17 years to find the last defenseman (Pronger), to win the Hart. Before that you have to back to 1969-through-1972 when the great Bobby Orr claimed the honor three years in a row. 

The air where Burns is playing right now is so rare, I think he should be rewarded for it. His style of play is not really robotic, either, which makes him fun to watch. Sure you can argue he does the same thing over and over again at times, but man he does it well!

Also on the sentimental side of the argument, I started my OHL career behind a mic in Brampton when Burns was a rookie under coach Stan Butler. Brent played all of one season, but what a season it was: 40 points in 68 games. 

You can't help but cheer for "kids" like Brent when you watch them grow into their NHL armor and flourish like he has. 


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