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Winning Play: What does Brent Burns do well defensively?

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Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks controling the puck, looks to skate past Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings in the second period in Game 3 of the Western Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Dear Drew Doughty,

Brent Burns does a lot of things well defensively. Really.

On Monday, you told The Athletic, “I watch Brent Burns get beat 20 times a game.”

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, don’t you think?

In addition, you noted that Burns and Erik Karlsson weren’t first-choice penalty killers. That they weren’t shutdown guys.

There’s some truth there. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun are the preferred San Jose Sharks’ penalty kill pairing. Burns isn’t hard-matched against the opposition’s most dangerous forwards. However, Karlsson did enjoy a stretch at home this year where he was the primary defender limiting Nikita Kucherov, then Connor McDavid.

All said, Burns and Karlsson are regular penalty killers; they follow Vlasic and Braun on the depth chart. So it’s not as if they’re completely shielded from penalty killing duty.

You also offered, of Burns and Karlsson, “They’re amazing as offensive guys. None of us are close to them there. We don’t have the offensive upside. But they don’t have even close to our defensive upside.”

While it’s true that you and Mark Giordano and other blueliners are better pure defenders than Burns and Karlsson, you’re also feeding the false narrative that the Sharks’ stars are one-dimensional rearguards. Even if you’re not saying that, people are thinking it. And this notion couldn’t be further from the truth.

Instead, this conversation should feature some nuance — can’t Burns and Karlsson be stronger in some defensive areas, weaker in others? And doesn’t their overall impact as defensemen matter more than their play at one end of the rink?

While the injured Karlsson wasn’t able to rebut you on Monday night, Burns flashed his defensive strengths in a 3-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

Chiefly, Burns’s stick is consistently noticeable.

That’s also the first thing Braun pointed out about Burns’s defensive game: “He’s got a good stick.”

If you don’t believe Burns’s teammate, per The Point Hockey, “Burns led the NHL last season in stick checks, averaging 2.7 per game.”

While this volume is no doubt driven in part by Burns’s significant icetime, the 6-foot-4 blueliner regularly surprises attackers with a long, quick stick and good feet.

At the point, Niklas Kronwall (55) believed he had Taro Hirose (53) open. Burns disabused him of that notion.

Andreas Athanasiou (72) jumped an errant Melker Karlsson (68) pass. He looked to be on the way to an Grade-A scoring chance, until Burns derailed him.

Athanasiou turned Burns around, but Burns’s skating and stick length allowed him to recover and force Athanasiou to shoot from a distance.

Braun added, “Since the first day that he got here, he’s gotten substantially better.” He cited Burns’s gap control as his teammate’s largest area of improvement.

Last man back, Burns correctly took the middle on Hirose’s rush to stay between a potential odd-man rush. But just as importantly, he matched Hirose’s speed. This is essential to good gap control, and put Burns in position to pounce on Hirose when he saw backchecking help.

“His gap, the way that he’s worked on his gap control in the time I’ve been here, has been night and day,” Peter DeBoer said in December. “That really sets up his defensive game. He’s got such a good stick and good feet. He’s a hard guy to get around.”

Burns’s size matters too. Combine 6-foot-4 with his skating and long stick — he takes up so much space:

Burns literally took the middle of the ice away from Frans Nielsen (51), keeping him to the outside. Lukas Radil (52) took care of Darren Helm (43).

Indeed, Burns might be best compared to a griffin. When he closes, it can be terrifying.

All of these skills — long stick, nimble feet and improved gap control, along with Burns’s wingspan — manifest themselves at the literal blueline, where he’s especially tough to cross.

To stay onside, the opposition often has to slow down when approaching the blueline. Time after time, Burns took advantage of that.

This is just another day at the office for Burns.

This is from November against Dallas.

This is from December against Arizona.

This is from December against Dallas.

This is from January against Vegas.

This is from February against Pittsburgh.

Andrew Berkshire, backed up with micro-stats from SPORTLOGiQ, wrote of Burns in October: “Constantly rips the puck away from opponents, wins battles, recovers loose pucks, and denies zone entries at rates most defencemen can’t compare to.”

Braun concurred, succinctly, “He ends plays.”

Finally, Drew, watch Burns against the number-one unit of the top-ranked Lightning power play and tell me that he’s one-dimensional.

In one minute, Burns cleared the puck twice, took the puck away from Victor Hedman (77) and successfully challenged Brayden Point (21) at the blueline twice.

Now this isn’t to say that Burns is a perfect defender. Remember, we’re having a nuanced conversation. He can be better in some areas, poorer in others.

For starters, Burns is a high-risk puckmover.

This pass to Tomas Hertl (48) was too easily jumped by Dylan Larkin (71).

Burns also tries things that in retrospect, he shouldn’t. This is an offensive mishap that causes stress on the defense:

You can also catch Burns puck watching.

“The best way [to stop Brent Burns] is to make him defend,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill noted. “To play in their end as much as we can.”

Blashill wasn’t criticizing Burns. But picking up his coverage isn’t Burns’s strong suit:

This is from February against Columbus. As Erik Karlsson (65) pressured Josh Anderson (77), a mesmerized Burns didn’t track Boone Jenner (38) screaming down the backdoor.

But ultimately, San Jose is thrilled with Burns’s two-way game. They want an aggressive Burns. Mistakes will happen, but when it’s working, it’s working. And it works, more often than not.

We know the highlights — Burns’s ability to turn defense into offense can be spectacular:

But in quiet ways too, Burns is an asset to the Sharks’ historically-sound defensive structure:

On opposite sides during the same shift, Burns pinched.

On the right side, Burns hampered the Detroit breakout. The forward, Logan Couture (39), read off Burns and covered for him.

On the left side, Burns forced an icing. The forward, Joonas Donskoi (27), supported Burns.

In both cases, this was positive team defense.

Anyway, Drew, the Sharks had a message for you.

Burns took the high road:

DeBoer furrowed his brow:

Braun stood up for his teammate: “Those comments were a little over the top. You don’t get to this level, be as good as he is, by just playing one part of the game.”

Notebook

Logan Couture and Ted Lindsay made their NHL debuts almost 65 years apart. But when the Red Wings great passed away on March 4, this generational gap didn’t keep Couture from honoring “Terrible” Ted’s legacy by sharing these tweets:

Lindsay was instrumental in the formation of the NHLPA in 1957, which Couture spoke about with Fear the Fin:

Fear the Fin: What was your relationship with Ted Lindsay?

Logan Couture: I met him once at an NHLPA golf tournament. But I’ve heard some nice stories, love the game of hockey, so I followed it.

I know what he’s done for the players’ association. We wouldn’t be where we’re at today without him, spearheading the whole association. We owe a lot to him.

FTF: What were some of the stories that you liked best about Lindsay?

LC: Just how hard he played. He’s “Terrible” Ted, right? He played the game extremely hard for a little guy.

FTF: Would you like to be known as “Terrible” Logan Couture on the ice?

LC: I’m sure some people in this world see me that way. Oh, on the ice? No, I don’t think that’s my personality.