LOS ANGELES – San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton truly meant what he said about teammate Brent Burns in mid-December when he called the defenseman the “best player in the world.”
To Thornton, this wasn’t just some hollow ‘pumping up my teammate’ type of hyperbole. It wasn’t supposed to be some subtle dig at Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who led his team over the Sharks in six games in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. Thornton believed that Burns was playing at a level he hadn’t seen in all his years of pro hockey, and he wanted to let people know how he felt.
“Just the amount of minutes he plays every night, what he means to our team, what he does out there – I think it’s something you probably haven’t seen too many defensemen do over the last 100 years to be realistic,” Thornton said of the 31-year-old Burns. “I think he’s a special type of player and I get to see him every night so I know how talented he is but I said he’s one of the most dominant players in the game and I really, truly believe that.”
This season a lot of numbers back up Thornton’s case as Burns has taken all-around hockey excellence to an exceptional level. His 19th goal against the Los Angeles made him the first defenseman since Paul Coffey in 1985-86 to reach that mark in 45 games. His 46 points are eight more than the next highest-scoring defenseman, and he’s doing this while averaging 24:57 of ice-time per-night, which includes 1:54 per-game on the penalty kill.
Burns currently holds a plus-1.78 5-on-5 CF% Rel, meaning that despite his tough minutes and match-ups his team still holds onto the puck more when he’s on the ice at even strength. At all strengths Burns is a plus-6.59 CF% rel.
In late November, the Sharks and Burns agreed to a new, eight-year, $64 million contract.
“I think his all-around game is excellent. He’s plus-15. We don’t have to hide him against the best players in the league,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “He’ll play against anybody and takes pride in that. At the same time he creates offense so he has found that nice combination where he is still very effective offensively but he has been great defensively.”
When the Sharks looked to acquire a puck-moving defenseman in the summer of 2011 and zeroed in on Burns, they didn’t see him as a franchise-altering acquisition. He had some solid offensive skills, was a 2003 first-round draft pick and was an All-Star with the Minnesota Wild in 2010-11, but he was mostly seen as a puck-mover and a possible replacement for Dan Boyle.
For several years, the Sharks tried to figure out how to best use Burns and his unique skills. He had 37 points in 81 games in 2011-12, and then moved to forward midway into the 2013 season, in part because the team said he had an injury.
“People need to know the reason he played forward was because he had an injury that prevented him from being allowed to pivot and open up, but he still wanted to help the team,” general manager Doug Wilson said.
Burns played with Thornton for 2013-14 where he scored 22 goals and notched 48 points – both career-highs – in 69 games. There he was able to learn from Thornton, one of the NHL’s top playmakers, develop some offensive confidence in the process.
“Everything helps your game. I think playing forward helps tremendously. Playing with a guy like (Thornton) definitely helps. I think if you play with a guy like (Sidney Crosby), (Alex Ovechkin) and (Thornton), guys who are elite offensive guys, there’s a reason why they’re there and if you can get anything from them to rub off on you – mindset, confidence, little plays, those things are huge,” Burns said. “Playing with Pavs and Jumbo for that year and the year we had and the amount of fun we had, I mean that’s huge.”
When Burns transitioned back to defense in 2014-15, his offensive game appeared more polished and he took off with a career-high 60 points. But it wasn’t until last season under DeBoer and defensive coach Bob Boughner that he truly tapped into his all-around ability. Burns scored 75 points and led defensemen with 27 goals.
DeBoer’s staff didn’t see Burns as a liability defensively and instead viewed obvious strengths in his 6-foot-5, 230-pound puck-moving frame. They used him for an average of 2:08 per-game on the penalty kill and had him on the ice in all key situations. Burns was rewarded by being voted a finalist for the Norris Trophy.
“I mean, again you can count on one hand the number of guys in the world that can do that in any sport,” DeBoer said. “Change positions and be an All-Star at either one. That’s so rare that it’s incredible to really be around. He’s just very gifted in a linebacker type body. He’s a rare guy you appreciate every day just because of how good he is.”
In the past, Burns had mostly been seen as a complementary piece on the Sharks – just one step behind Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and maybe even Logan Couture. This season that hasn’t been the case. As the team has seen a lot of its star players struggle to score at past levels, Burns has become the Sharks’ main weapon.
He also showed his defensive chops when shutdown blue liner Marc-Edouard Vlasic went out from Dec. 31 through Jan. 7 after getting hit in the face with a puck. In those four games, Burns played over 26 minutes per-night on the top match-ups and still ended up with a goal and four assists along with a plus-2 rating.
“I think obviously you get to play more – you enjoy those games,” Burns said. “Nothing changed too much in the way we play. We have six great D and the responsibility just goes down the line. You just get to play more I think. You get to play in more situations. Those things help. It gets you into the game more. Those are the fun nights where you’re playing 27, 29, 30 minutes, it’s great.”
But in a league that has seen Crosby, Ovechkin, and now Connor McDavid all being discussed as the world’s best player over the last 10-plus years, is it realistic to believe that Burns can come from seemingly nowhere and ascend to such a perch?
Hockey defines greatness not just by points, but by team wins and if Burns leads the Sharks to a Stanley Cup in 2017, finishing the job from last year, that could affirm him at the top of the league for this season.
Does this really matter to Burns though? Part of what makes him tick is his ability to not let external motivations get to him. He just wants to play well every night because performing at a high level is important no matter the circumstance.
“I mean, I think (the 2016 playoffs) were an unbelievable experience. It was a lot of fun but there’s no difference. If you didn’t make the playoffs last year you’d want to get to the Stanley Cup Final this year. I don’t care if you lose in the first-round, you’re motivated. If you have no deal you’re motivated. If you have a deal you’re motivated,” Burns said. “You’re just motivated it doesn’t really matter in that circumstance I don’t think. I think we’re competitive guys. We want to get back there anyways. You want to win. You want to create something special every year. When you have that experience and you have fun and you see how much enjoyment you get out of the game and those special events we get to do and those things you’re part of, that’s what you want.”
– – – – – – –
MORE FROM YAHOO SPORTS