SAN JOSE – At one point in his career, Sharks defenseman Brent Burns welcomed the idea of playing multiple positions.
Drafted as a winger by the Minnesota Wild 20th overall in 2003, then-coach Jacques Lemaire was the first to try Burns on the blue line.
“Pregame skates as a d-man, warm up as a winger, game maybe both,” Burns said. “At that time I was young, it kind of took a lot of stress off. It was fun. I learned a lot from him, too.”
Eventually Burns became a full-time blueliner with the Wild, and that’s why the Sharks targeted him as Dan Boyle’s eventual replacement in the summer of 2011.
Nearly five years later, Burns is a Norris Trophy finalist as the NHL’s best defenseman. His offense is the principal reason why, as no rear guard had more goals than Burns’ 27, and only Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, also a finalist, had more points than his 75.
But his improved defensive game after a year-and-a-half as an effective power forward under Todd McLellan stands out even more than his gaudy offensive numbers. Burns credits coach Pete DeBoer for helping in that regard, erasing any ambiguity as to which position the 31-year-old would play.
From the first day since he spoke publicly as the new Sharks head coach, DeBoer made it clear to Burns and anyone else who was listening that Burns was going to play defense. No matter what.
At this stage of his career, that was just what Burns needed to hear.
“I think it was great with Pete coming in and just saying, ‘hey, he’s a d-man.’ I think that set the tone a little bit – not a little bit, a lot – for me,” Burns said.
“I’ve always kind of battled through that, going back and forth. Not battle, that’s the wrong word – but it’s always been there. Somebody gets hurt, it’s always like, 'hey, am I going to play wing? Am I staying? What’s going to happen?'
“Now, with [DeBoer] coming in and having [assistant coach Bob Boughner], he’s been huge behind the bench, during the game, after the games going through clips and stuff. It’s just been a huge help.”
Shortly after the playoff collapse to the Kings in 2014, general manager Doug Wilson announced on a conference call that Burns would be transitioning back to defense.
While that move was a bit unanticipated at the time, as Burns had just come off a 22-goal, 48-point season in 69 games on Joe Thornton’s wing, it wasn’t a complete shock, as Wilson also announced on that same call that Boyle would not be retained as a free agent.
The problem was, Wilson and McLellan never got on the same page with it. On the first day of the 2014-15 training camp, several players in Sharks’ dressing room remarked that they expected Burns might be utilized as a forward at some point in the season.
“If we need a goal later on in games I’m sure you’re probably going to see him up front a little bit,” Thornton said at the time.
Even McLellan said that the move was “a commitment – right now.”
Burns, and the team as a whole, suffered as a result. Critics of his defensive game (including, admittedly, your humbled Sharks Insider) were abundant. He just never looked comfortable.
Now, though, Burns is as big a reason as any that the Sharks are in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. He’s been even better in the playoffs, too, leading the club in playoff scoring with 10 points (2g, 8a), including three straight multiple-point performances headed into Sunday’s Game 2 with Nashville.
He’s a long shot to win the award, as most of the pre-vote discussion regarding the Norris centered around Karlsson, last year’s winner, and Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty, who is probably the favorite.
But none of that really matters to Burns right now. Although he considers being a finalist a “huge honor,” he’s in the midst of trying to help the Sharks capture their first Stanley Cup.
“There’s a lot of guys that have had great years, so to be mentioned among them is special,” he said. “But, on the other hand, it’s more important to be playing and winning, and being a part of something special. That journey is more fun.”