Is Sharks rearguard Brent Burns the MVP this season, Eric Duhatschek asks
The San Jose stalwart leads all defencemen in goals and points at the season’s halfway point
Joe Thornton was making a stump speech on behalf of his San Jose Sharks’ teammate Brent Burns, the mid-season favourite to win the NHL’s Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenceman.
But Thornton wasn’t just talking Norris. He was pitching Burns for MVP – and making a good case for his bearded, tattooed friend, who is in the midst of an exceptional breakout season.
“With the amount of minutes he plays and the way our offence goes around him, he isn’t just the best defenceman in the game, he’s the most dominant player,” Thornton said.
Thornton raises an interesting point, if only because, historically, defencemen have rarely factored into discussion about the Hart Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL’s most valuable player. The last defenceman to win the Hart was Chris Pronger in 2000. Before that, it was Bobby Orr in 1972.
Even Nicklas Lidstrom, a seventime Norris Trophy winner and the dominant defenceman of his generation, never finished either first or second in the final Hart balloting. Hall-of-famer Ray Bourque was twice a runner-up – the closest anyone else has come in almost 40 years – but usually, voters opt for forwards or goaltenders when casting their Hart ballots.
So here we are, just past the midpoint of the 2016-17 season and while there have been a number of excellent individual performances, no clear-cut MVP candidate has emerged. A convincing argument can be made for everyone from Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby to Columbus’s Sergei Bobrovsky and Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk.
But do any of them mean more to their team’s success than Burns does to San Jose’s?
Entering Friday’s games, Burns was leading all NHL defencemen in points (44) and in goals (17), well ahead of the competition. With nine points in his past four games, he’s also edged into fifth place in the overall league scoring race and is just a single point out of second.
Last week, Burns was chosen to play in the NHL’s all-star game for the fourth time. The 20th overall pick in the 2003 entry draft, with the full beard, all the tattoos, someone mostly known for the menagerie of reptiles in his personal zoo, is finally drawing attention for more than the quirkiness of his looks, or personality, or hobbies. It’s for what he’s accomplishing on the ice.
“He’s different, like something you’ve never seen before,” Thornton said, “but he’s also the hardest player in the league to play against. You don’t want to play against him in practice because he’s so big and strong. He’s intimidating. He’s one of the best skaters in the league. He has one of the best shots in the league. He really has everything you want in your franchise player.”
The Sharks unexpectedly advanced to the Stanley Cup final last spring, losing to Pittsburgh, and are having a better regular season now than a year ago. They are second in a closely contested Pacific Division, and have been transitioning to a younger team, while still getting contributions from the likes of Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
What’s all the more remarkable about Burns’s development into an elite defenceman is that it wasn’t so long ago (March of 2013) that the Sharks converted Burns to forward because they felt it was too risky to play him on defence. San Jose’s coach at the time was Todd McLellan, who’d previously coached Burns in Houston (AHL), where he was frequently deployed up front early in his career. Burns fit the prototype of the power forward, and three years ago, San Jose was desperately searching for extra scoring and muscle up front. Burns played the 2013-14 season on the wing, mostly alongside Thornton, and then was permanently shifted back to defence the following year.
Even now, Burns plays something of a rambling-gambling style, but the risk-to-reward ratio has been so positive for the Sharks, that they don’t want to pull the reins in on him, for fear of undermining the catalyst he’s become to their offensive game.
Burns is 31. Few players in NHL history have made such a demonstrative improvement in their games at so late an age. But according to Thornton, it took time for Burns to get comfortable playing in his own end and once that happened, it made him a more complete player.
“Maybe his confidence was a little off in the past,” he said. “I think everything came from improved confidence.”
Soon after Peter DeBoer took over as the Sharks’ coach in May of 2015, San Jose signed defenceman Paul Martin, who’d previously played for DeBoer in New Jersey, primarily to play as Burns’s partner in five-on-five situations. To DeBoer, Martin has provided the sort of defensive stability in the pairing that permits Burns to freewheel. They are a good match, one of those rare times that a plan mapped out on paper actually translated perfectly well onto the ice.
Now in his ninth NHL season, DeBoer also spent 15 years coaching in the OHL, which is where he first crossed paths with Burns. Coaching someone such as Burns, the last of the NHL’s rugged individualists, has been no issue for DeBoer.
“The beauty of our group is, it’s a loose group that likes to have fun, that enjoys the game, but also knows that when the puck drops, it’s time to compete,” DeBoer said. “That starts with Thornton, [Joe] Pavelski, [MarcÉdouard] Vlasic, all those guys. I think because the group accepts him and has accepted him so much, it’s easy on the coaches. For me, when the puck drops, I know what I’m getting from them. What their hair looks like, or their beards, or whether they shower that day or get a new tattoo, I could care less.”
Slowly, the recognition for Burns’s playing ability is starting to build. Thornton, who won the league MVP award in 2006, does not believe there is a voting bias against players in the Pacific Time zone, but says people need to see Burns in person to appreciate how good he is.
“A lot of people don’t see him first hand until he comes to their city and then they see this guy and they’re like ‘wow.’ He is that good. He is that dominant. And I think you’re finally seeing a breakthrough now. Last year, he was nominated for the Norris, and this year, he’s obviously getting some recognition, which has been deserved for the last two years,” Thornton said.
“Sure, he doesn’t fit into the box of what an NHL player should be. But I like it. I like hanging with him. He’s not like the rest of your buddies. He’s off the wall – and I appreciate that. Personally, I think it’s refreshing. I don’t know about everybody else, but he’s different – and definitely a lot of fun to be around.”
Brent Burns, 88, was playing forward for the Sharks just three seasons ago, and has easily made the switch back to defence.