Hurricanes Starting to Get the Brent Burns They Sought

There is always an adjustment period when a player joins a new club, especially when that player is 37 years old and joining just his third team in a long NHL career. This is even more likely going from a team like the San Jose Sharks — a gritty, grind-games-out squad that has been struggling for the last few seasons — to the Carolina Hurricanes — a Stanley Cup contender who plays one of the most up-tempo, aggressive systems in the NHL.

Still, the Hurricanes acquired Brent Burns this offseason to be their big offensive weapon on the blue line; a top-pair defenseman to skate alongside the great Jaccob Slavin and quarterback their top power-play unit. He’s been far from perfect, but with two goals, six points, and a beautiful game-winner to cap off a riveting 4-3 comeback win on Saturday night against the Philadelphia Flyers, it’s hard to be too critical, especially if this is what a “slow” start looks like for Burns.

Burns Showing Life, But Still Finding His Place

The first eight games of his tenure with the ‘Canes have been a roller coaster for Burns, the veteran offensive defenseman of 1,259 NHL contests, 229 goals, and 783 points. However, it was ever-so fitting that in his first head-to-head matchup against his predecessor in the Hurricanes’ top-pairing, offensive defenseman, Tony DeAngelo, Burns was the hero. The beautiful game-winning goal, his second marker in as many nights, came on the type of powerful shot that made him such an attractive option to the Hurricanes to begin with. Burns has been firing away already, with 28 shots on goal that trail only Andrei Svechnikov on the Hurricanes. This was expected in a system that already wants to throw everything on net, even before having a shooter of his caliber on the roster.

That’s the good news; Burns’ offense is still a weapon from the blue line. He already has contributed consistently both at even strength and on the man advantage. This despite, well… the bad news that he hasn’t been the dynamic factor he’s capable of being; that the Hurricanes really need him to be to reach their ceiling as Stanley Cup contenders. Even with the game-winner, it was a bit of a break-even night; he shouldered a lot of the blame on the goal that cut a 2-0 lead in half, chasing the play from the front of the net despite that his partner, Slavin, was already below the goal line. This allowed Philadelphia Flyers forward Nicolas Deslauriers to position himself just outside the blue paint alone for an easy goal. That brought the Flyers to life, and before the Hurricanes knew it, it was 3-2, Philadelphia.

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This speaks to the learning curve of joining a new team. This is not the first time this season that a goal came directly on a misplay from Burns, be it on an over-aggressive pinch that resulted in an odd-man rush, or over-zealous defensive play that left an opposing forward unmarked in a dangerous area. Every NHL player makes mistakes, but, as a defenseman, it’s been amplified for Burns, whose every mistake that became a scoring chance has seemed to end up in the net to this point. It feels like to some degree he’s simply been a little unlucky in that regard.

Burns’ Best is Still to Come

Slavin is perhaps the best defensive partner Burns has ever had, at least when it comes to playing in his own end. Burns can now be aggressive to chase offense at times. He can afford this luxury because Slavin is so good at covering for his partner and erasing would-be mistakes well before they develop into dangerous chances. Unfortunately, Burns still seems stuck in between, hesitating to be too offensive (which is what the Hurricanes need from him) while overthinking the play defensively, which has led to slow reactions or mistakes.

Hockey often comes down to comfort in making the simple play, instead of overthinking it, something I will talk about later this week for Burns’ teammate, Martin Necas. At some point, this system will click for Burns. He’ll be able to jump into the play with more assertiveness, knowing Slavin will bail him out if needed, and that’s when the fun will begin for the lovable, big-bearded defender. Once he stops thinking about his every move and has the comfort in his new system, his instincts will take over, his monstrous shot and play-driving ability will result in lots and lots of goals for the Hurricanes.

Brent Burns San Jose Sharks
Brent Burns with the San Jose Sharks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Some of the defensive breakdowns are likely to go away, too, and the power play is almost assured to take a big step forward with increased knowledge of the system and confidence in his play. One of the most intriguing parts of Burns’ game is his ability to push up into the play, use his size and strength to bully defenders and create offense from the interior of the offensive zone. He’s a power forward and defenseman combined, and while it may take some time, it’s easy to see him start to terrorize the Hurricanes’ opponents.

I’ve mentioned before that Burns might be an even better fit than the two most recent top-pair offensive defensemen the Hurricanes have put alongside Slavin, DeAngelo and Dougie Hamilton. Despite some struggles, there’s no reason to back off that thought process through eight games. Remember, both of those players fought through periods of struggle early in their Hurricanes tenure, too — especially Hamilton, who more closely mirrors Burns’ playing style. Eventually, the light came on for him, and I expect the same to happen for Burns.

Once that happens, a few early-season mishaps will be a distant memory, overshadowed by big goals and highlight-reel plays. To begin the season, a west-coast road trip was preceded by a long, four-day break, immediately followed by three games in four nights with travel. The Hurricanes haven’t had any favors from the early-season scheduling when it comes to finding their footing or rhythm. The best is still to come for the team, and that goes for Burns, too.

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