When Brent Burns was acquired from the Minnesota Wild this offseason he filled a need the Sharks have had for the last two postseasons-- a number two defenseman who could help take some responsibility off the shoulders of Dan Boyle, provide high-quality minutes on either the Sharks first or second pairing, and contribute offensively from the defensive position.
At 6'5 230 pounds Burns was an attractive add from a physical standpoint. He gave San Jose more size on the backend, an ability to handle opposing team's forwards in the corners, and deliver swift but legal punishment in front of the net. His greatest contribution to the team was expected to be his ability to generate offensive scoring chances through his sensational skating abilities and sizzling shot. Somewhere in the middle were questions concerning his defensive ability, knocks he carried over from his time in Minnesota where he transitioned from forward to defenseman after being drafted as a forward in 2003.
Seven games in, and the returns have been excellent for San Jose.
The first thing people mention when they speak about Burns is his world-class slap shot, which approaches Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara, and Sheldon Souray levels of firepower when he gets time to tee it up. However, the most effective tool in his arsenal is his wrist shot-- Burns has an uncanny ability to put the puck on net quickly and powerfully at a moment's notice, giving opposing forwards and defensemen little time to dive into shooting lanes and disrupt the shot. This has resulted in a few near misses and some juicy rebounds that goaltenders have found difficult to handle. Furthermore, his ability to move at the blueline and open up a path to the net resembles that of Ian White, the best defensemen on the team last season when it came to horizontal skating with the puck.
Burns season has already gone through a miniature transformation of sorts, or at least given Sharks fans a nice overview of his abilities. The first three games of the season were wild affairs-- Burns streaking up the ice with the puck, pinching aggressively in the offensive zone, going for the grand slam play-- but also presented the defensive mistakes that were a concern heading into the season. Burns made his fair share of mistakes in his own end during the first three games of the year, some glaring and others subtle but equally detrimental.
He was a wild stallion running free in McLellan Ranch, tearing across the landscape with abandon. He was getting used to a new system, a new partner, a new team, and taking his lumps along with dishing out a few of his own.
But following the 4-2 loss to St. Louis on October 15th, you could see things begin to click. He was sensational offensively in San Jose's 3-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, scoring a 5v3 goal after a feed from Joe Thornton slid into his wheelhouse and nearly tying the game in the dying seconds of the third period. Most importantly however, after three games where he looked out of sorts in the defensive zone, Burns began to put the pieces together in the defensive end as well.
Over the last four games Burns has been steady defensively, with those mistakes becoming fewer and fewer each game. Playing alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic definitely helps of course, as Vlasic has been the best Sharks blueliner on the road trip by leaps and bounds in the defensive end, but Burns' knack for squeezing out players along the boards and recognizing when to jump into the play has only improved as his time with the Sharks has gone on. There will still be some mistakes as the year progresses; Burns is likely at least a year away from truly becoming a reliable defensive presence that can go against opposing teams top players on a nightly basis and avoid coming out in the red. But his progress thus far has already been a noticeable, and welcome, improvement from where he began the season.
It all comes back to offense with Burns however, and his underlying numbers truly highlight just how effective he has been. His CORSI number, which measures shots directed towards the net while a player is on the ice, looks more like a typo than reality. Amongst all eight Sharks defenseman who have suited up this year, Burns has a 41.7 relative CORSI. The second highest defenseman on the team? Marc-Edouard Vlasic sporting an 11 flat, with every other defenseman on the team having negative totals. Huh?
What this means is that Burns is swinging the pendelum so wildly in his direction, he's shifting the team average to a place where everyone but Vlasic (his partner) is "below average" at driving the play in the right direction and helping his teammates put the puck towards the net. For those people attempting to wrap their head around advanced stats this is undoubtedly confusing. Let's look at something that, while essentially the same type of metric, should be easier to interpret.
Five on five shot differential per 60 minutes is easy to understand-- you take the amount of shots on the opponents net, subtract the amount of shots on the Sharks net, adjust for ice time, and get a snapshot of which blueliner is on the ice for the most shots. And once again, Burns comes out smelling like roses. He has a +28.4 shot differential, first on the team. His partner, Vlasic, comes in second at +16.0. The rest of the list is as follows: Boyle (+10.4), White (+9.1), Murray (+4.8), Demers (+3.7), Vandermeer (-1.9), and Braun (-10.9).
No one is even coming close to Burns-- he's driving the play offensively, and has been one of the most influential players in getting the Sharks shot totals to where they are right now. Sample size, zone starts, and quality of competition numbers are definitely helping him out here but, even with those caveats, the numbers are staggering.
San Jose has long been an organization which has played a distinctly methodical, low-tempo style. Dan Boyle, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture, and Martin Havlat are all excellent players who can give opposing teams crippling migraines in their own various ways, whether it be on offense or defense. Nearly every single one of these players is a better two-way player than Burns is right now.
But Burns just has that spark, that intangible voodoo magic, which defies explanation. That ability to singlehandedly change the complexion of a power play, a game, or a series, that someone outside of Antti Niemi and maybe Logan Couture just don't have right now. It's having a set power play entry dedicated to you, where the team is clearing out the neutral zone almost like an NBA game, passing you the puck as you hit the zone with speed, and saying go make a play. It's a blend of raw athletic talent and a willingness to play on that precipice dividing risk and reward, the ease at which he transitions up the ice and the utter force at which he directs shots towards the net. Burns has "it" in spades; and whatever "it" may be, it exists in only a special few.
Burns isn't even the best defenseman on the team right now-- that honor still resides with Dan Boyle. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the perpetual non-perceptual backbone, is the reason Burns will have so much success this year and into the future. Without him, this article probably doesn't occur. Players like Thornton, Boyle, and Marleau are undoubtedly more important to the team, and legitimate Stanley Cup contention doesn't come without players like the red-hot Pavelski or the exciting Havlat.
But Burns is a guy who, when a team is trailing by a goal in the third period, you get the puck.
Because every time he does, it seems like magic is right around the corner.