SAN JOSE – No single player spent more time on the ice for the Sharks last season than Brent Burns, who logged more than 300 minutes than any of his teammates.
The now 30-year-old defenseman was the Sharks’ lone All-Star, revitalizing the top power play unit as its quarterback and creating havoc for opposing defenses on many nights. He finished tied for second in the league among scoring for defensemen with 60 points, and followed that up with a strong performance in the World Championships for Team Canada.
Burns was named as the tournament’s top blueliner while Canada captured gold under head coach Todd McLellan and assistant coach Peter DeBoer.
He’ll remain on defense under DeBoer when the 2015-16 season gets underway. The new Sharks coach suggested recently that recent acquisition Paul Martin is a likely partner for Burns, after San Jose signed the veteran defenseman to a four-year contract on July 1.
“For me, [Burns] has the ability to be one of the top five defensemen in the world,” DeBoer told CSNCalifornia.com at the NHL Entry Draft in Florida two weeks ago.
Still, recent statistics over the last three seasons are concerning when it comes to Burns’ performance as a defenseman when compared to his playing wing, as he did for most of the 2013 shortened season and all of the 2013-14 campaign. His struggles in the defensive end last season were evident, and didn’t go unnoticed by the PHWA, as Burns got just a single fourth place vote on the 157 ballots for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman.
*Since the start of the lockout-shortened 2013 season, the Sharks are 64-31-10 when Burns plays forward, and 42-37-10 when he plays as a defenseman.
*Over that same time frame, the Sharks have outscored the opposition 317-259 when Burns is a forward (3.02 goals per game; 2.47 goals-against), but have been outscored 250-237 when he’s a defenseman (2.66 goals per game; 2.81 goals-against).
*If advanced stats are your thing, Burns' two best Corsi (shot attempt) percentages came when he was skating alongside center Joe Thornton as part of a line that was among the most dominant in the NHL in terms of possession.
Perhaps even more striking is that this past season, results show that the Sharks performed better when Burns’ minutes on the blue line were limited:
*In games that Burns played more than 25 minutes, the Sharks were 13-14-6, allowing 2.94 goals per game.
*In games that Burns played fewer than 23 minutes, the Sharks were 16-11-2, allowing just 2.34 goals per game.
*Offensively, the Sharks were slightly better when Burns played more while using those same time parameters, scoring 2.73 goals as compared to 2.52. Still, Burns played, on average, about a minute and a half more on the power play than he did shorthanded. Many of his minutes came while he was playing on the Sharks' 6th-ranked power play unit, making the overall numbers all the more impactful.
Furthermore, none of the Sharks’ other defensemen had particularly good seasons. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun weren’t able to match their elite performances from 2013-14, and all of the other bluelines had their moments of inconsistency, too, leading to the Sharks' 24th-ranked goals-against average (2.76). That could suggest that Burns’ move back to defense threw a huge monkey wrench into what was a pretty structured and effective group the season prior, while also taking a major weapon away from the forwards.
Still, despite all that, DeBoer is committed to playing Burns on defense for the upcoming season after witnessing his strong performance firsthand in the Czech Republic. It was the second time that DeBoer has coached Burns in that tournament.
“I had no issues with him defensively,” DeBoer said. "I’ve had him in two World Championships, and neither time did he have issues defensively.”
DeBoer, like Doug Wilson did in February, suggested that Burns was still adjusting to going back to the blue line last season despite more than 700 games of NHL experience.
“When you’re moving back and forth – defense isn’t something I think you just jump in to,” DeBoer said. “There’s a reason that the best defensemen in the league are 28, 29 [years old]. It’s a trade [that] you have to learn all the little details of the game.”
“I’ve looked at the tape last year. I think there’s going to be a comfort level that he’s going to get to again. He’s coming with a lot of confidence off the World Championships. I’m not worried about him defensively.”