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PITTSBURGH – The puck took a funny hop. Carl Hagelin, one of the fastest skaters on the planet, turned on his jets and began chasing it.
“I just saw him start skating and I said, 'Oh God. I don't know why he's doing that,’” said San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns. “Then, I saw it behind us."
So Burns started chasing after the Pittsburgh Penguins forward. He closed in, just enough to lift his stick, sweeping the puck away, preventing another offensive chance for the Penguins in their eventual Game 1 Stanley Cup Final win on Monday night.
It was a Norris Trophy-worthy play from Burns, which is only appropriate since Burns is a Norris Trophy finalist, despite, you know, having been drafted in 2003 by the Minnesota Wild to play a position that’s ineligible to win the Norris Trophy.
Burns has become known for many things. His hillbilly jug band beard. His samurai hair. His tattoo sleeves. The mile-wide gap in his smile. That small zoo he keeps in his home. Whatever this was:
Dressing like Chewbacca:
And, of course, being a glorious quote machine, like when he was asked about Game 1 nerves:
“It’s the idle time. You’re sitting there. Laying in your bed. The old brain starts to wander. The A.D.D. goes all over the place. It wanders. Hard to control that thing.”
But, fundamentally, the oddest thing about Brent Burns is that he became one of the most successful defensemen in the NHL after having been drafted as a forward.
It was former Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire that first planted the seeds for Burns as a defenseman, having him take pregame skates as a defenseman and warm-ups as a forward, opening Burns’s mind to both possibilities.
Eventually, he shifted to defense, where his vision, puck-moving and cannon of a shot were all assets. It was as a defenseman that Sharks GM Doug Wilson sought after him, trading a first-round pick, Devin Setoguchi and Charlie Coyle to Minnesota in 2011 for Burns. He was an all-star defenseman, and the Wild traded him due to a pending new contract.
But the Sharks weren’t completely sold on him as a defenseman – to wit, Wilson said at the time they were just acquiring “a dynamic player.” San Jose’s coach at the time, Todd McLellan, had worked with Burns when both were with the Houston Aeros of the AHL. As the Sharks needed some offensive pop up front during the 2013 season, Burns was moved to a power forward role.
"There was a time in his career where he was an in-between guy," McLellan said at the time. "We'll tap into that a little bit. We'll see where it goes and what can come out of it. He's still a tremendous defenseman with a tremendous amount of skill back there, but we're trying to play to what our needs are right now and maybe he can help us."
Burns excelled on right wing, to the point where a move back to defense was seen as a mistake by the Sharks. From Fear The Fin in 2014:
A lot has been made about Wilson's comments yesterday that the team may need to take one step backward in order to take two steps forward. Moving Burns to defense seems like taking one step forward then two steps back. It's a step forward in that it gives the team a good puck-moving defenseman capable of injecting speed into a blueline that lacks it but it's two steps backward in that it both robs the team of an elite power forward and does nothing to address a tremendously shallow left side.
Of course, at that time, no one knew that the Sharks would add Paul Martin one year later, bolstering the left side of the defense and giving Burns a partner that elevated his game.
Still, for Burns to get a Norris nomination is a validation of his game that many felt would never arrive. The stigma of being “the forward playing defense” was tough to shake – the perceived liabilities in Burns’s defensive game, simply because he wasn’t “born” into hockey on the blue line.
“The only people that really talk about it are you guys. In our room and within our group, he's been outstanding both ends,” said Sharks coach Peter DeBoer. “I had this guy at the World Championships last year, best defenseman of the tournament both ends of the ice. I've seen that all year from him. There's been no issue defensively.”
For Burns, it’s simply an issue of having his game constantly growing and developing. He’s worked with Sharks assistant coach Bob Boughner. He learned plenty from the Sharks’ defensive Jedi Larry Robinson, who like Burns was one of the taller defensemen of his era.
“You’re always learning things. Drew Doughty’s been playing 'D' his whole life. He’s still learning things. Kris Letang is still learning things. You have to always be learning,” said Burns.
But above all else, you have to love what you do. It takes a certain mindset to excel on defense, and Burns has it.
“I like playing ‘D’ better. I get to create more as a D-man than I did as a forward. And it’s fun to frustrate guys. I enjoy shutting guys down and playing against guys and frustrating guys. I didn’t move back to ‘D’ to score more goals,” he said, before shrugging.
“Ah, well, it’s fun to score goals too.”
Let’s be real: There’s one path to a Norris Trophy nomination, and it’s not through chasing down the Carl Hagelins of the world to prevent goals. It’s creating goals, too, as the award has become as contingent on offensive output as it has defensive prowess.
To that end, Burns had 75 points in 82 games, including 27 goals that had 19 come at even strength. In the playoffs, he’s in the Conn Smythe conversation with 22 points in 19 games.
I asked Burns if there was another forward he thought could make the transition to defense as well as he has.
“Well, Buff’s done it right?” asked Burns of Dustin Byfuglien of the Winnipeg Jets.
But actually, Buff started as a defenseman who was shifted to forward.
“Oh, did he?"
So he was stumped. But I followed up, asking him what it would take for another forward to do what he has done. And he said it takes a love of both positions.
“That’s a big one. Enjoying both. At the end of the day I just love playing both. I don’t take it as a slight to asked to get switched. Some guys might not like to do it. But I enjoy both. It’s always a fresh energy. And it’s fun to do it,” he said.
Burns is nothing if not fun. On the ice. Off the ice. And of course in the mirror, where the grin, the beard, the tattoos and the fashion sense are all parts of one of the NHL’s most unique talents.
“I walk around with it. I’m stuck with it. It’s alright. I’ll get the teeth fixed when I’m done,” he said.
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