Brent Burns is all over the place.
His facial hair? Defiantly unruly. His fake teeth? Missing in action. His role on this Sharks team? Perpetually changing, beginning when he arrived from the Minnesota Wild in 2011 as a gunslinging offensive defenseman, transformed into an assertive power forward and then became a blueliner once again.
That is until this season, when Peter DeBoer and his new coaching staff, in particular the sagacious Bob Boughner, dutifully helped the mercurial Burns to his latest identity: a bona fide Norris Trophy candidate.
“I think Burnzie has to be up for the Norris,” Joe Thornton said. “This guy, nobody wants to play against this guy. He’s the hardest defenseman to play against. He’s so big and so strong. I think he’d probably be the hardest guy to play against in the league. He just has all the skills.
“But when Burnzie doesn’t have a beard, he looks like a second grader.”
This would be a second grade, of course, filled with 6-foot-5, 240-pound man-children who have Harry Potter tattoos and five o’clock shadow at 8 a.m.
No, Burns isn’t quite a second grader. He just plays one on TV. That is, when he’s not the singular most unique talent in the NHL today.
“I think that when you look at any of the teams that have gone deep or won Stanley Cups, they all have elite defensemen back there – elite No. 1 defensemen,” Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said. “There’s only a handful of those guys in the league. Brent Burns is one of them. He can change a game with his skating, he can change a game with his physical play or his shot.”
This season, Burns has also changed his game with improved decision making. While Burns has always been able to score and been physically imposing, the one area where he’d always been lacking was his ability to read the play and make basic, safe decisions when the extraordinary wasn’t called for.
It’s these improvements that have helped Burns improve from a popular, but unpredictable blueliner into one-man wrecking crew that can be trusted to kill penalties late in a game as much as score the game-tying goal.
“I think I’m really cautious,” Burns recently told SJSharks.com, which was a comment met by teammates’ laughter from across the dressing room.
“It’s true! I don’t think I’m really that risky,” Burns added, with an incredulous laugh.
With that comment, Burns’ teammates laughed even harder. They laugh a lot when he’s around.
There’s a lot of smiling, too.
Most Points In a Season By an NHL Defenseman Since 2005-06
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators - 82 points (2015-16)
Nicklas Lidstrom,Detroit Red Wings - 80 points (2005-06)
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators - 78 points (2011-12)
Mike Green,Washington Capitals - 76 points (2009-10)
Brent Burns,San Jose Sharks - 75 points (2015-16)
Most Goals In a Season By an NHL Defenseman Since 2005-06
Mike Green, Washington Capitals - 31 goals (2009-10)
Brent Burns, San JoseSharks - 27 goals (2015-16)
Sheldon Souray, Montreal Canadiens - 26 goals (2015-16)
The slight tweaks, even if he’s hesitant to acknowledge he’s even made them, that Burns has made to his decision-making (when to attack, when to sit back) process have consistently put him in better position to score more, at a historic level.
At the same time, Burns earned a level of trust from DeBoer that he never had under Todd McLellan’s regime. This may be best exemplified by how much time-on-ice DeBoer’s staff gives Burns, which may be the most time-tested method of evaluating a defenseman, rather than with in vogue possession metrics.
Highest Average Time on Ice by a Sharks Defenseman Since 2005-06
Dan Boyle - 26:14 (2010-11)
Dan Boyle- 26:12 (2009-10)
Brent Burns - 25:51 (2015-16)
Dan Boyle- 25:34 (2011-12)
Dan Boyle- 24:46 (2008-09)
Dan Boyle, the most accomplished defenseman in Sharks history, is the only blueliner the team has ever had than can rival Burns’ current workload. Not Boyle, nor any other current NHL defenseman except Erik Karlsson, can rival his production.
“He’s got a big engine,” DeBoer said of Burns. “He can skate all day. I’ve had some other players like that. (Ilya) Kovalchuk, in New Jersey, was like that. We played him a lot. I had (Jay) Bouwmeester in Florida going way back. Those guys that skate that way that have those kinds of engines don’t wear down. It’s not an issue. I think he thrives on it.”
It would also seem that Burns thrives on being all over the place.
Even if he sometimes denies it.