By Andrew Podnieks – IIHF.com
If you were to ask Brent Burns what his greatest hockey memory is, it would surely be the gold medal he won with Canada at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Prague.
He was named IIHF Directorate Best Defenceman, was a force on the blueline, and was among the top scorers in the tournament. In the gold-medal game, a 6-1 thumping of Russia, Burns logged more ice time than any other player on either team.
Burns also helped Canada to the World Cup title this past September. In all, he has played at four World Championships (winning a silver in 2008) and one U20 (silver in 2004).
But now, as we play out the final quarter of the 2016/17 NHL season, Burns is on the cusp of accomplishing something great with his club team, the San Jose Sharks. He sits tied for third in the scoring race with Sidney Crosby and Brad Marchand, all three having 67 points. Patrick Kane is second with 68 points, and at the head of the pack is Connor McDavid with 72 points.
The focus is on Burns, though, because he is a defenceman, and blueliners don’t often produce offensively at the rate needed to put them in consideration for the Art Ross Trophy as leading scorer in the regular season.
Indeed, only six defencemen have finished in the top-ten of NHL scorers. Leading the way is Bobby Orr. The extraordinary Orr is the only D-man to have won the scoring title, a feat he accomplished, twice. In 1969/70, he led all players with 120 points, and in ‘74/‘75 he finished with 135 points. In all, he placed in the top ten for six years running, from 1969/70, through 74/75, before knee injuries ravaged his career.
New York Islanders Hall of Famer Denis Potvin made the top ten twice later in the 1970s, and Paul Coffey did so six times between 1983 and 1995. The only other defencemen to produce to this degree were Ray Bourque (1986/87), Al MacInnis (1990/91), and Brian Leetch (1991/92).
Coffey was the last defender to make the top ten, in 1994/95, a feat Burns is surely going to match some 22 years later. The closest anyone ever came to equaling Orr’s achievement was Coffey in 1983/84, when he finished second in scoring, but that is a misleading figure because although he accrued an astounding 126 points, teammate Wayne Gretzky finished with 205 points!
Why is Burns succeeding this year in a way he never has in this his 13th year in the league? For starters, he has offence in his DNA. When the Minnesota Wild drafted him 20th overall in 2003, he was a right winger with the Brampton Battalion in the OHL. Indeed, the Sharks used him as a forward for much of the two-year period 2012-14, but having a defenceman who can add offence is more valuable than a scoring winger, so the Sharks have kept him on the blueline whenever possible.
Second, Burns is both a tremendous shooter and a skilled passer. He sees the ice as well as any defenceman and is smart about deciding when to pass or shoot. He also is logging plenty of ice time. His 24:55 average per game puts him 10th among all players this season.
At 6’5” and 230 pounds, and a beard that only adds to his intimidating presence, Burns can play physically and create space and scoring chances simply because of his size. Not many players – forwards or defemcemen – can do that.
And, Burns is the anchor on the team’s power play. Indeed, 7 of his 27 goals have come on the power play and 19 of his 65 points are with the extra man. The Sharks are a talented, offensive-minded team, and Burns is a key part of that offence under coach Peter DeBoer.
Last year the Sharks went to the Stanley Cup finals, losing to Pittsburgh in six games. The team has its sights set on getting as far, and then winning it all this year, and key to their chances is Burns’s play from the blueline.
The team has 19 games left in the season, but before the playoffs start Burns has the chance to chase Coffey, and maybe even Orr. No matter how you slice it, he is having a season for the ages.