On June 24, 2011, San Jose Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson cut a deal that eventually changed the direction of the franchise. At the NHL Draft in St. Paul, Wilson acquired defenseman Brent Burns from the host Minnesota Wild, sending Devin Setoguchi, 2010 first round pick Charlie Coyle, and San Jose’s 2011 first round pick the other way.
Now, almost exactly six years later, Burns is a Norris Trophy winner, and set to enter the first year of an eight-year, $64 million contract, the richest in franchise history. He may not wear the “C,” and with the uncertain futures of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, Burns is now the (bearded) face of the Sharks.
The path to this point was not smooth, nor was it straightforward.
Burns joined San Jose in a different role than the one he’d held in Minnesota. He was not expected to immediately lead the blueline, but to take the pressure off of veteran defenseman Dan Boyle, and eventually take the reigns from him.
In his first season in teal, Burns was third among defensemen in ice time, averaging two-and-a-half minutes less (22:32) in ice time than his final year with the Wild. Bad puck luck and playing often alongside a declining Douglas Murray limited Burns in his first year with the Sharks, and the team bowed out in the first round to the St. Louis Blues in five games.
His journey meandered in the lockout-shortened season that followed, when then-Head Coach Todd McLellan moved Burns to forward in order to spark a team in desperate need of goal-scoring. The gamble paid off, as Burns scored 20 points in 23 games on Joe Thornton’s wing. The switch propelled San Jose to the postseason, which ended in an epic, seven-game second round series with the Los Angeles Kings.
Forward is where Burns stayed during 2013-14, and he continued to succeed. Playing once again with Thornton, as well as rookie Tomas Hertl and eventually Joe Pavelski, who was making a position transition of his own, Burns emerged as a dominant power forward. He scored a then-career-high 22 goals (20 at even strength) and 48 points, and the best even-strength corsi-for (57.3%, per Hockey Reference) and fenwick-for (57.2%) percentages of his career.
A blown, three-games-to-none series lead over the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the postseason ended that experiment. The Sharks opted not to re-sign Boyle, forcing Burns’ return to the blueline in the 2014-15 season. There was resistance to that move at the time, and rightfully so: at that point, Burns was arguably more beneficial to the Sharks’ offensive attack up front than on the back-end, despite Wilson comparing him to the league’s elite defensemen.
Pavelski’s continued development into a top-end scoring winger alleviated some, but not all of the concerns caused by Burns’ shift back to defense. The team’s forward and defensive depth were still lacking, even after the acquisition of Brenden Dillon, and the Sharks missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002-03.
Although Burns struggled at times, he showed signs that an elite defenseman was emerging. There were bone-headed turnovers and frustrating mistakes, but Burns set then-career-highs in assists (43) and points (60). That spring, Burns was named the IIHF World Championships’ best defenseman in a Gold Medal-winning tournament.
McLellan was Canada’s Head Coach at that tournament, but departed the Sharks prior. His eventual replacement, Peter DeBoer, was also behind Canada’s bench during the tournament, and said Burns was "turning himself into a world class defenseman."
Under DeBoer and alongside defensive partner Paul Martin over the last two seasons, Burns has completed that turn. Only Erik Karlsson has scored more points (153) than Burns (151) since the start of the 2015-16 season, and has set the Sharks’ single-season record for points by a defenseman in each of the last two seasons, and helped lead San Jose to its first Stanley Cup Final appearance last spring. This fall, he took home Gold at the World Cup of Hockey and signed the longest contract in franchise history, becoming the team’s highest-paid player in the process.
He was a Norris Trophy finalist last season, and won his (and the Sharks’) first on Wednesday night, three days shy of the six-year anniversary of the trade that first brought him to San Jose.
It took time, and a route that was anything but direct, but Burns has become one of the league’s best defensemen, and one of its best players period. He was brought in as a piece used to build around the Sharks’ veteran core, and has become the piece to be built around.
Six years and a strange journey later, the San Jose Sharks are truly Brent Burns’ team.