The eyes, as they say, are a window to a man’s soul.
That’s a little too deep for hockey. But, an equivalent might go something like this: a man’s facial hair is a window into his style of play.
Take Brent Burns and Paul Martin.
Burns is among the most recognizable players in the NHL today due in large part to his wild and wooly beard that seems to have no real beginning or end, like a 90s troll doll turned upside down. It suits him. Just like his unkempt frizz, Burns could dart off in any direction at any time during gameplay. Off the ice, Burns is beloved by his teammates and fans for his excitable, life-of-the-party disposition.
Martin’s style and personality is a sharp contrast. The 34-year-old, who sports some well-manicured stubble and owns a razor, comb and some brand of hair care product at the very least, is as steady and reliable a defenseman as there is in the Pacific Division. No matter what's going on around him, chances are the soft-spoken, measured veteran will be in the right spot at the right time.
If Hurricane Brent is occurring somewhere on the ice then Martin is the calm in the eye of the storm, and the partnership between the unlikely duo is a vital reason the Sharks find themselves tied for first place after sweeping a six-game road trip.
* * *
Burns has benefited from having a steady partner, which is a luxury he didn’t have throughout last season’s dysfunctional campaign. He’s not only tied for second on the Sharks in scoring with 17 points, he’s second in the NHL in shots with 94 and fifth in ice time at 26:23 per game.
“To have one guy to play with for a long time, I think it’s just simple chemistry,” Burns said on Sunday.
“You read off of each other better. It’s a fast game and things are happening so quick, to have an inkling of what a guy wants to do and how he reacts to certain situations, you can’t just have that. You have to develop it.”
On the Sharks’ road trip, Burns managed 29 shots on net in tallying three goals and three assists. Is he getting more opportunities to shoot with Martin by his side?
“I think [Martin] passes over a lot to me. Obviously before, if I’m playing with a guy like Matty Irwin, he wanted to shoot too so you’re not going to get those opportunities. I think Paulie has been looking for me a lot.”
One theory regarding Burns’ erratic play last season is that there was perhaps some confusion over his role. On the first day of training camp some of Burns’ teammates even hinted that they expected him to play forward every once in awhile. When asked on the first day of camp, asked if he was committed to Burns as a full-time blueliner, Todd McLellan replied that he was “right now.”
While McLellan can’t be blamed for wanting to keep Burns as an effective power forward, the coaching change from McLellan’s staff to Pete DeBoer’s may have aided Burns-the-defenseman more than anyone on the roster.
“They’ve been great. Just the atmosphere has been so good,” Burns said of the new staff. “They’re working with you, they’re positive. If you do make a mistake you’re right back out [on the ice].”
While the 30-year-old Burns is never going to resemble Nicklas Lidstrom in his own end at this stage of his career, the Sharks’ coaching staff can live with that so long as he’s contributing in other areas. And, he is. Burns has yet to skate fewer than 23 minutes in any game this season.
“There are just so many positives that happen when you’re playing a lot,” Burns said. “Depending on the flow of the game, the penalties – if you get a penalty, it’s just great that you’re always going out and you’re always playing.”
* * *
To gauge the significance of the Sharks adding Martin over the summer, the Penguins’ dressing room is a good place to start as the defenseman played the previous five seasons in Pittsburgh.
Martin was particularly close with Beau Bennett, a young player still trying to establish himself in the NHL after he was drafted in the first round in 2010.
“He’s just kind of the best pro there is. Treats the young guys well, comes to the rink every day and is always in a good mood,” Bennett said. “Then when it comes to the game, he’s one of the best players every night. Coming up and learning from him and being able to spend time with him really helped me my first couple years to just get acclimated to the pro life. We miss him a lot around here.”
There are similarities between Burns and Martin’s former partner, Kris Letang, the latter of which really seems to miss his old mate. Last season Letang finished with 11 goals, 54 points and a +12 rating in 69 games, but this season the offensive-minded defenseman has just 1 goal, 11 points and a team-worst -13 rating in 20 games.
Letang described Martin, as “under control, he’s poised with the puck. There’s never an urgency going on, it’s just one level. He’s never off that track.”
Martin’s reliability also helped Letang be more aggressive, as Burns has been encouraged to do.
“You know [Martin is] going to be there,” Letang said. “[He] understands the way you think when you want to go offensively. That’s a big point with Paulie, if I was taking a chance, he knew what it was I was thinking and he knew how to back me up for different things.”
Martin, who has 1 goal and 7 points in 18 games, is aware of the similarities between his former partner and his current one.
“They have a very similar skill set and ability to make things happen – get pucks to the net, create opportunities. Burnzie is obviously a little bit bigger and it allows him to be a little more physical, but they are very similar in the way that they skate and play the game.”
As for similarities with Martin and Burns, though, there aren’t too many, no matter which angle you’re coming from. So far, that’s been just fine.