Is Sharks rear­guard Brent Burns the MVP this sea­son, Eric Duhatschek asks

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - GLOBE SPORTS - ERIC DUHATSCHEK CAL­GARY

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.”

CHRIS­TIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IM­AGES

Brent Burns, 88, was play­ing for­ward for the Sharks just three sea­sons ago, and has eas­ily made the switch back to de­fence.

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