As the long, cold winter finally gave way to spring showers in 1924, Frank Nighbor, of the original Ottawa Senators, was adjudged the most valuable to his team. He was awarded the Hart Memorial Trophy, which was donated by Dr. David Hart the year previous. Since the original awarding of the Hart in the roaring 20’s, it has been presented 90 times to 54 different recipients.
To no one’s surprise, Wayne Gretzky has captured the most Harts; winning nine total including a stretch of eight in a row. Goaltenders have won the award only seven times, with Dominik Hasek the only multi-time goaltending winner. That leaves us with defensemen, who have managed 13 wins. Which takes us into the chances that noted beard wearer, Brent Burns, has of taking home the top individual accolade in the NHL.
Historically, as I stated above, the chances are slim. It becomes even slimmer when you look at the time-frame and winners of the past defense Harts. Not to take away from the pioneers and early NHL era, but it is hard to equate that timeframe to today’s game. Eddie Shore received four Harts, the most by a defenseman, but they all came in a six-team league in the ‘30s. Other winners like Babe Siebert and Ebbie Goodfellow also came in a time of pre-expansion.
By starting to look for historical comparisons after the expansion of 1967 we can come closer to what the landscape of today looks like. However, since the expansion only four Hart awards have been handed to rear guards. The next sentence should come as no surprise to anyone who loves hockey and knows of its history. Bobby Orr of Parry Sound, Ontario won three straight Harts in the ‘70s. Orr might be the most talented player to ever lace up a pair of Bauers, and these Hart seasons are punctuated by a ludicrous 102 assist, 139 point, 78 game campaign. A defenseman scored 139 points let that sink in. Bobby Orr is a once in a lifetime player that will never been seen again. Unfortunately, as much as we love Burnzie, he is no Orr, which is fine because no one is.
That leaves one - one!! - time in a “modern” NHL setting a blue liner has collected MVP honours. Chris Pronger narrowly defeated Jaromir Jagr to the tune of one vote or .18% of the vote. The Russian Rocket was a close third. This time period is the height of garbage hockey with the clutch and grab era at its most clutchy and grabby. This is not to take away from Pronger, who is one of the finest defenders to ever play, but he is a different style than Brent Burns in a different era.
Frankly, by looking just at the historical precedent set out, it is a massive uphill climb for Burns to win the Hart. This isn’t a battle that cannot be won however. The NHL writers who vote on the award are slowly changing and have been better to point out seasons that deserve praise, like Carey Price a goalie in 2015. When we get into the stats, both traditional and fancy, it becomes clear Burns candidacy is no joke.
Starting with the box score stats, it paints a picture of pure dominance from the bearded defender. As of the morning of January 14th in the 2017th year of our lord Gary Bettman, Burns sits at an eye popping fifth in scoring with 44 points. Ahead of Burns are four of the most high impact offensive forces to play in the game today. He is six behind McDavid and only one point back of the three-way Malkin-Crosby-Kane party. Burns settles in at 13th in goals scored and 9th in assists. Burns has flat out been a beast when San Jose takes the puck over the offending blue line. Surprisingly, Burns also leads the NHL in shots on net with 166, just one more than one of the top five goal scorers ever in history, Alex Ovechkin.
What we can learn from just basic stats is that Burns has been a driving force in San Jose. He shoots a lot, he scores a lot and he leads San Jose in almost every statistical category. This is also not a “good stats on bad team” situation either. San Jose is second in the Pacific, coming within two wins of the Cup and looking to head back to June hockey again. Burns is a star on one of the best teams in the league. Hart voting definitely considers the aspect of how the team does when casting ballots. This gives Burns a big plus.
If you dig a little deeper, and admittedly I don’t fully understand Corsi, Fenwick, and PDO but do understand what they represent, we see that Burns stats are sparkling. We see that he has a CF% of 51.7, a FF% of 52.62 and a PDO of 102.89. What these numbers represent is that Burns drives possession and creates opportunities for San Jose. The higher the things like Corsi are, the more Burns has possession of the puck. Anyone who watches a Sharks game can assert that this is true as Burns logs heavy minutes, 24:56/g, and constantly has the puck.
Another piece of statistical evidence we can use to fortify Burns candidacy is skater win shares. Hockey Reference has a handy page explaining how it is calculated because it looks like Fibonacci and Einstein had a math baby when you see the formula. Firstly, Burns is second in offensive point shares at 5.4, slightly behind Crosby. A defenseman being second in a stat built for forwards is impressive and speaks to how involved Burns has been in the Sharks offense.
Sliding over to the defender version, Burns logically tops the defensive win shares list at 4.1, narrowly ahead of Ryan Suter’s 4.0. The fact Burns is leading this list means that he isn’t just spending his time looking for goals. Burns is actively a large part of the defense in the Bay and has to be defensively responsible in order to have the highest defensive win share. You can’t pull your best Paul Coffey impersonation and expect to also prevent goals. Burns has increased his defending abilities every year since moving back from wing and it is starting to bear fruit. He is no Vlasic, but there is no need to panic when the Sharks are hemmed in to their own zone.
Finally, when you take the offensive and defensive shares and add them together you get total point shares, which gives you an idea how many wins this player is contributing. This is similar to WAR in baseball or PER in basketball. Goalies have their own win share stats because they obviously aren’t out here sniping goals. Lo and behold, Burns sits king of the win share list at 9.5. He is just ahead of Devan Dubnyk, Officer Bobrovsky and Braden Holtby. Crosby is noticeably low on this list because he missed a bunch of games at the start of the season, but projecting him forward brings him up to around 8.5 win shares.
What do all these stats and figures mean for Burns Hart chances? It means he can’t be ignored. There is no way a reasonable person can look at the offensive force and responsible defender Burns has become and leave him out of the consideration. This assumes he stays on this trajectory and would allow him to lock up the Norris. This also means Burns is the best player on his own team, which we can safely find to be true. Thornton and Father Time are dancing a dangerous tango, Pavelski is slightly off his pace from last year, Couture isn’t the Alpha Dog yet and Jones has been incredible but is not even in Vezina talk.
If we are talking raw stats and that the voters will use purely these numbers, Burns should win with the combination of numbers plus he plays defense, a numbers stifling position. However, this is not the case and there are other factors at play.
First, Karlsson didn’t win last year. Flat out, Karlsson had a similarly gaudy point-producing season last year and finished in the backwoods of the voting. Kane won in a landslide and Ottawa was a dismal eastern conference non-playoff team. Both of those things are not true this year as the Hart race is seemingly tighter and San Jose is hurtling towards a playoff berth.
The bigger factor against a Burns win would be his competition. Sidney Crosby is burning up the NHL this year. He is on pace for a career high in goals and is averaging a casual 1.29 points per game. Crosby is also THE face of the NHL and there is no two ways about it. Crosby is going to be in the discussion every single year, because honestly he is the best player in the league. If this was a best player award, Crosby wins and would have won for many years than he has.
Luckily it is a most valuable player, whatever the definition of that is, and the writers aren’t in the business of going Crosby every single time. Dubnyk, Bobrovsky and let’s be honest, Price are all goalies who are integral to their team’s success. Dubnyk and Bob have the stats and Price did have stats but has fallen off, but so has Montreal, and we all saw last year’s debacle, which lends itself to the fact Price is the most valuable player to his team bar none. I don’t think a goalie will be deemed the Hart winner so closely to Price’s 2015 win though.
This brings us to McDavid; the next golden boy, leading the hapless and ruined Oilers back to the playoffs and returning pride to the once great franchise. He is also topping the league in points and has all the numbers. It just makes too much sense for the hockey writers to anoint McDavid and make him the next King.
Now with everything being said, I return to my original position that you can’t ignore Brent Burns. Defensemen are equally as valuable to centres and wings even if they don’t appear to have the same impact on the score sheet.
This season Burns is having a forward like impact on the box score all the while keeping his defense in good form. After all that my friends, we have the Hart foundation for Brent Burns.