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SAN JOSE – No Sharks player has been under a microscope this season more than Brent Burns.
One of the team’s most popular players among the fan base, Burns’ game has been and will continue to be a focal point, after general manager Doug Wilson decided to move him back to the blue line after a successful one-and-a-half season stint as a power forward.
Offensively, Burns has been a force with 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points. He’s third on the Sharks in scoring, and second in the NHL among defensemen in goals.
That’s the primary reason the 29-year-old is headed to his second career All-Star game.
“It’s a huge honor. It’s a special event, it’s fun for the family,” Burns said on Monday. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Todd McLellan said: “I think it’s exciting for Brent. It’s a nice reward for him individually, but also for our organization for him to be recognized as one of the top defensemen, and to do it in the fashion that he has – going from being a pretty dominant forward back to the blue line, it speaks volumes of his athleticism and his ability to adjust and react.”
In his own end, Burns continues to work on his game. His -9 rating is the worst mark on the team, although McLellan said on Monday he considers that a “terrible stat,” and many would agree.
Still, Burns also has 17 minor penalties, which is five more than any other player on the roster. He’s playing a team-high 23:42 per game, but continues to have nervous moments defending in open ice or one-on-one situations, and doesn’t always seem willing to use his six-foot-five inch, 230-pound frame to his advantage. T.J. Oshie’s goal last Thursday night in St. Louis is a good example, as Burns left the Blues scorer untouched and all alone in front of the net to deposit a rebound when all he needed to do was get a body or a stick on him.
Burns said the transition back to defense has gone as anticipated.
“It was going to take some time, I knew it was going to,” he said. “If you ask any of these other guys, they’re still learning stuff, too. It’s been as expected. It’s good.”
McLellan weighed the pros and cons of Burns not getting overly involved in the physical aspects of the game.
“When he’s engaged, if you want to call that physicality, and near people and closing quick, he is more effective defensively,” McLellan said. “But, the opposite holds true offensively. He’s got to find some quiet ice and find open space and be ready to use his shot. He does a good job of that. It’s 50-50 defensively and offensively.”
Burns had been paired primarily with Brenden Dillon ever since a November trade brought Dillon to San Jose from Dallas. After losing 7-2 to the Blues on Jan. 3, though, it’s been Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic skating as the team’s top pair, while Dillon has been with Justin Braun.
The results have been mixed, as the Sharks beat Winnipeg and Minnesota, but were smoked by St. Louis again and lost a more tightly contested battle to the Rangers.
McLellan explained the blue line shuffle.
“We had good success for a period, and then it started to get a little bit stale. Defensively, we’ve given up a number of goals, and wanted to change it and look at doing things with other pairings. ... We’ve won some games with them there and played extremely well, and we’ve also given up a lot of goals with them there. We’ll see where it goes.”
Burns’ game will still be something to monitor even after he competes in the All-Star Game in Columbus in less than two weeks. It’s not a stretch to say that the team’s playoff destiny rides on his continued adjustment in the defensive zone. There are no plans to move him back to forward, and it’s a question as to whether McLellan would be permitted by management to do so, anyway.
If he gets better defensively while maintaining his offense, he’ll be a unique, powerful weapon. If not, moving him back to the blue line could end up being a colossal error in judgment.