Sharks defenseman Brent Burns needs little introduction.
The big-bodied, bearded former Norris trophy winner is one of the faces of the NHL, and plays a style of hockey as lively and recognizable as his off-ice persona.
Since being acquired by San Jose in 2011, Burns has developed into an all-star, and one of the most electrifying players in the league. He scored 27 goals in the 2015-16 season, and 29 the following year, bringing home the Norris trophy — the first in San Jose’s history. While Burns’ hyper-offensive play style consistently produces highlight reel moments, it often comes at the expense of his defensive responsibilities, drawing the ire of many fans. Over the years, it hasn’t been uncommon to watch the wookiee aggressively pinch to land a crowd invigorating body check, or skate deep into the offensive zone and fire a dangerous wrist shot from the blueline, only for the opposing team to counterattack, with him out of position and his team left vulnerable.
Typically, head coach Peter DeBoer has attempted to counteract this by pairing Burns with a more defensively-minded partner on the back end to compensate for his penchant for risk-taking. It’s no coincidence that in his Norris-winning season, Burns played alongside the calculating, responsible Paul Martin, and in the 2018-19 season (one of the best of his career) he spent most of the year paired with rookie Radim Simek — another proponent of a decidedly defense-first style of play.
At first glance, the idea that Burns’ 2018-19 season could be spoken of in the same breath as his 2016-17 Norris winning campaign seems ridiculous; he did score almost 30 goals as a defenseman in the modern era, an incredible feat. But while Burns’ 16 goals this year may look pedestrian in comparison, the rest of the numbers tell a very different story — one of him improving on almost every aspect of his game at an age few players typically do.
For the fifth straight season, Burns flexed his elite conditioning and durability, playing in all 82 games, something additionally impressive when accounting for his heavy usage rate and multiple playoff runs over the last several years. Offensively, he tallied 16 goals, an improvement on the previous year’s 12, and tallied a career-best 67 assists, not only the most in the league by a defenseman, but fifth in the league overall, ranking above players such as Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby and Nathan Mackinnon. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a career points year for Burns, as he tallied a whopping 83, averaging over a point-per-game from the back end. For context, the last time a defenseman scored 83 or more points in a season was when Brian Leetch did so in the 1995-96 season.
Burns dominated possession, posting a 56.8 percent Corsi for (CF%), good for his highest since 2013-14 and the second highest of his career, while posting a +4.0 percent relative Corsi for (CF% rel) on the league’s best 5-on-5 CF% team. He made massive strives in his defensive game, tallying 88 takeaways, the most of his career, while only giving the puck away 118 times, the fewest since his 2015-16 campaign. Burns significantly improved upon last season’s +/- rating, seeing a jump of +29 (-16 to +13) and despite racking up 90 hits, his highest total since 2015-16, he actually reduced his penalty minutes year-to-year, going from 46 last year to 34 this year.
During the playoffs, Burns was relied upon an incredible amount by the coaching staff. With Erik Karlsson clearly still suffering from a groin injury, defense partner Radim Simek missing the entirety of the post-season, and Joakim Ryan averaging a mere 8:41 average time on ice (ATOI) per game, Burns was saddled with an incredible ATOI of 28:25. It added up quickly, and his 213:18 spent on the ice in the first round was the seventh most in NHL playoff history.
Despite the physical toll this had to have taken on his body, Burns performed well, scoring five goals (four at even strength) and 11 assists in 20 games.
RAPM Chart (via Evolving Hockey)
Burns’ Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus (RAPM) chart reinforces what we already know about the defender; while he isn’t perfect defensively, as evidenced by his lackluster defensive expected goals for (Def_xG), the way in which he can impact the game offensively is incredible — particularly on the power play.
Career Summary (via HockeyViz)
As seen above, Burns has been playing the role of a first-pairing defenseman since the 2014-15 season. He was a bit of a late bloomer in terms of offensive production, never quite hitting his stride in Minnesota despite playing first pair minutes for the Wild in the 2010-11 season.
(It’s important to note that the drastic decrease in his TOI/role between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 season has to do with Burns being utilized as a right winger, the position he was drafted to play).
While Burns produces oodles of highlight worthy film every year, I chose what felt like, to me, the most Brent Burns moment of the season.
The goal he scores here, an overtime winner, really encapsulates how he plays the game. Sure, he can score on one-timers, slap-shots from the blueline, or wrist-shots that sneak through net-front traffic, but so can plenty of other defensemen. What sets Burns apart from his peers on the back end is his embrace of risk — he does all of that well, but pushes even further. Despite the progress he’s made as a defender, we know who Brent Burns is; he’s always looking to break the game open, and he isn’t afraid to gamble to do so.
Looks can be deceiving — he’s as much Han Solo as he is Chewbacca.
What comes next?
Burns is under contract for the next six years and will likely remain a Shark the entirety of his career, be it due to his contract (cap hit + modified no-movement clause) or his organizational importance from an off-ice (marketing) standpoint.
With a fully healthy Erik Karlsson on the blueline for the Sharks next season, Burns will likely see a decrease in his minutes, and subsequently, a decrease in his point totals. In particular, if Joe Pavelski doesn’t return, Burns stands to lose a noteworthy source of his assists; Pavelski’s all-world puck tipping prowess turned many a Burns wrist shot into a goal.
Regardless, fans will be chomping at the bit to see No. 88, in a blur of facial hair and missing teeth, take the ice to start the season.