San Jose Sharks veteran and future Hall-of-Famer Joe Thornton said it clearly. Sharks defenseman Brent Burns needs to skate another 50 games and the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman is his. Thornton then added more superlatives, calling Burns the best player in the world.
Is Thornton correct? Well, Burns needs to do more than just skate another 50 games to win a Norris. He needs to keep up his level of play. If he does, not only should he win the Norris, it ought to be close to unanimous.
A Long Way Forward
Last season, Burns struggled defensively for about half the season. In early January 2016, he was minus-15. Even on offense, Burns was not overly effective. He was able to score, but he wasn’t doing well with creating offense for others. The Sharks had 20 even strength goals with Burns on the ice, they had scored 23 with third pair defenseman Brenden Dillon on the ice.
The second half of last season saw Burns improve in every aspect of the game. The Sharks offense went from sluggish with Burns on the ice to dynamic. Burns defense improved dramatically. He went plus-10, the rest of the way. The liabilities in Burns game were gone.
Even though Burns showed some regression on defense at the start of this season, the regression is gone now and Burns is a force across the entire ice sheet. He has 29 points in 31 games. One telling stat — he is not getting a ton from the power play. In each of the last two seasons, 40% of Burns points came on the power play. This season it is barely over 30%. In terms of even strength goals, Burns is tied for 11th in the league, with 10. This is among all players. No other defenseman is even in the top 50.
Burns leads the Sharks in goals overall and goals at even strength. His ten even strength assists tie him for the team lead with Joe Thornton. At plus-eight, he leads the team there, too. And he leads in ice time. His 133 shots on goal leads not only the Sharks but the entire league. 61% of the goals scored with Burns on the ice are scored by San Jose. For last season’s Hart Trophy winner, Patrick Kane, the figure was 55%. If Burns continues his pace, he will be on the ice for more 5-on-5 goals than Kane was last season AND fewer goals against.
On the penalty kill, Burns is proving very effective. He is 25th best in the league in GA60 (team goals against per 60 minutes of ice time). The player who is 24th on the list? Anze Kopitar, last season’s Selke winner as the league’s best defensive forward. Burns also happens to be 23rd in GF60 (team goals for per 60 minutes of ice time) on the penalty kill. In over 60 minutes of penalty-killing ice time, Burns is a mere minus-tow.
The Whole Game
In every aspect of the game, Burns is thriving. One thing Burns does not have — the profile of other players. Yahoo! Sports recently commissioned a poll asking fans which players they were most interested in seeing. On the provided list of 20 ‘must-see’ players, Burns was somehow absent.
I’ve called Burns the most interesting player in hockey. He is the best defenseman in hockey. With 50 games to go in the season, much can change. But so far, he is the Norris leader and second place, whoever it might be at this time, is not close. And yes, Burns might very well be the best player in hockey. Given his role for the Sharks and how reliant the team is on Burns’ all-around game, he could very well be the league’s MVP.
ZEKE is a native of the DC area where he witnessed the birth of the Capitals franchise. After graduating from Cornell University, which had seen hockey glory before he arrived, he moved west to San Jose. There he witnessed the birth of the Sharks franchise. His wait to witness a Championship from any of these teams finally ended in 2018.