Sharks

Brent Burns' path to Norris was an unconventional one

Brent Burns' path to Norris was an unconventional one

It was February 22, 2013, and the Sharks were in Chicago for a game in the first half of the lockout-shortened season.

In the third period of a 1-1 tie, Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad accelerated towards the Sharks’ end on what looked like a harmless two-on-two rush. Directly in front of Saad in the neutral zone was a backwards-skating Brent Burns, who puzzlingly slowed up, pivoted the wrong way, and allowed Saad far too much room to fire a wrist shot from the circle that cleanly beat Antti Niemi. It was the game-winner in a 2-1 Chicago victory.

In the hallway outside the visiting dressing room at United Center afterwards, then-coach Todd McLellan wasn’t pleased. 

"I thought that we let a player in a situation that wasn't very dangerous skate into a primary scoring spot without even challenging him,” MeLellan said. "I'm not sure if our goalie was on the angle or not, but I'm disappointed we didn't challenge [Saad] earlier."

Translation: Burns misplayed it. Badly.

Burns, it was later revealed, was having difficulty with his mobility after an offseason surgery. About a month later, also partially because of that injury, he was converted into a power forward – and he was an effective one, at that. The thought of him eventually winning a Norris Trophy in his career would have been preposterous as the abbreviated 2013 season came to a close.

Four years later, though, it’s happened. Burns was named as the NHL’s most outstanding defenseman for the 2016-17 season at the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas on Wednesday night, the first Sharks player to ever capture the prestigious award. It capped off a dominant season for Burns, who even got some votes for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

The path that Burns took to winning the Norris is as unique as his fashion sense.

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After more than a season playing right wing, including the entirety of 2013-14 when he posted 22 goals and 48 points in 69 games, general manager Doug Wilson announced after the Sharks’ disastrous first round choke job against the Kings that Burns would be going back to the blue line the next season.

It was a move that McLellan and the Sharks’ coaching staff were never fully on board with, and when McLellan was asked in training camp whether Burns would stay on the blue line, he replied it was “a commitment, right now.”

Burns would admit more than a year later that that ambiguity wasn’t helpful, and it showed on the ice. While the 2014-15 season was a disaster for the Sharks on a number of fronts, Burns never looked comfortable in his own zone. Offensively, he was strong, posting 60 points in 82 games. But untimely turnovers, questionable decisions with the puck and poor positioning plagued him all season long. The Sharks missed the playoffs.

Internally, there were some in the Sharks organization – in addition to standing those behind the bench – that thought the team would never win consistently as long as Burns was playing 20 minutes a night on defense. He was just too erratic.

But the Sharks missing the playoffs that season may have proven to be a blessing in disguise, as least as far Burns is concerned. The defenseman joined Team Canada for the World Championships, coached by McLellan and assistant Pete DeBoer, and was dominant. He was named as the best defenseman in the tournament while the Canadiens won gold.

Soon after that, DeBoer took over the Sharks. There was no question in his mind that Burns was going to stay on the blue line in 2015-16, after he saw firsthand how Burns performed in the Worlds.

“I think there’s going to be a comfort level that he’s going to get to again,” DeBoer said at the 2015 draft, shortly after taking the Sharks job. “He’s coming [in] with a lot of confidence off the World Championships. I’m not worried about him defensively.”

While there were still some kinks in Burns’ game early in DeBoer’s first season as the Sharks hovered around .500 through Christmas, the Wookiee kept improving. DeBoer and assistant coach Bob Boughner decided that the best way to handle Burns play was to allow him the freedom to roam, while pairing him with responsible free agent addition/defensive-minded defenseman Paul Martin. Burns was free from the shackles of the McLellan-Jim Johnson approach, which was a little too technical for his liking.

“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 lot for me,” Burns said late in April 2016.

By the end of the season, Burns was dominant. He ended up as a Norris Trophy finalist for the first time, ultimately finishing third, after he was second in the NHL in scoring among defensemen with 75 points while playing a sound defensive game, too. His play over the second half and in the playoffs catapulted the Sharks to their first-ever appearance in the Stanley Cup Final that June.

* * *

This season Burns picked up where he left off at the end of the Sharks’ lengthy playoff run. He was far and away the team's most valuable player, leading the Sharks (and all NHL defensemen) with 76 points. His 29 goals were tops among NHL blueliners and tied for the Sharks team lead, while his 320 shots led the NHL.

Now one of the best two-way players in the NHL, skating as a forward for a season and a half helped to make Burns the force he is today, according to McLellan.

“I think the time that he spent up front has allowed him to finally become that dynamic offensive d-man,” McLellan, now the Oilers’ head coach, said last December. "He understands what it feels like to drive the puck to the net, where the holes are. I think that time that he played up front really allows him to be a multi-positional type guy. … He’s taking charge, and it’s happening for him. Tremendous player."

His development resulted in the Sharks signing Burns to a massive eight-year, $64 million contract extension on Nov. 22, 2016. That’s as clear a signal as any that the Sharks believe the 32-year-old will continue to be a Norris contender, at least in the near future. 

Wilson, who deserves an enormous amount of credit for getting Burns back on the blue line amid a sea of doubters, expressed confidence that the six-foot-five, 230-pounder could keep on dominating when that contract kicks in next season.

“To see that size and that skill set and that type of shot, there’s not many players like that that can create offense from the back end. But, he also defends well,” Wilson said.

“I honestly do feel he’s just coming into his prime.”

Sharks winger Joonas Donskoi has officially arrived

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AP

Sharks winger Joonas Donskoi has officially arrived

It turns out the top-six winger the Sharks needed to replace Patrick Marleau was on the roster all along.

Joonas Donskoi skated on Logan Couture’s line in Monday night’s shootout loss to the Ducks, and was San Jose’s best player. He scored the Sharks’ only two goals, and tied for the team-lead among forwards with four shots on net.

Donskoi added another goal in the ninth-round shootout, but his two goals in regulation were his sixth and seventh on the season. With those goals, he surpassed his total from an injury-riddled campaign a year ago, and stands three tallies clear as San Jose’s second-leading goal-scorer this season.

Due to Melker Karlsson’s injury, Donskoi skated with the Sharks’ leading goal-scorer, Logan Couture, and rekindled the strong chemistry the pair has shown since the Finnish winger arrived in San Jose in 2015.

Of the nine lines Couture has skated on for at least 50 minutes dating back to the beginning of the 2015-16 season, the three best in terms of puck possession have had Donskoi on his wing. Those three combinations have controlled at least 54 percent of the five-on-five shot attempts, according to Corsica Hockey.

Adding Tomas Hertl, who’s already a strong possession player, to that line bodes well for an even stronger second line moving forward. With Karlsson on the wing, the line controlled only 47.7 percent of the shot attempts, per Corsica, meaning the Sharks have been routinely out-possessed with them on the ice.

That was not the case with Donskoi in Karlsson’s place, as Donskoi posted positive possession numbers alongside Couture and Hertl on Monday, according to Natural Stat Trick. The results were there, as evidenced by the game’s opening goal, but it’s a good sign that the process was, too.

The same, frankly, can be said of Donskoi’s entire season up to this point. He likely won’t convert on over 18 percent of his shots all season, of course, but the Sharks have the puck more often than their opponents when he’s on the ice, and should continue to generate pressure, chances, and ultimately goals, even if Donskoi’s personal scoring comes down.

When Karlsson comes back, Donskoi should remain on Couture and Hertl’s line. That would allow the former to slide into a role better-suited to his game, and the latter to bolster San Jose’s top-six forward group.

Donskoi’s earned an extended look in that spot thanks to his resurgence, and subsequent emergence, this season. Thanks to him, replacing Marleau’s production suddenly seems much less daunting.

Two Donskoi goals not enough as Sharks fall to Ducks in shootout

Two Donskoi goals not enough as Sharks fall to Ducks in shootout

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Antoine Vermette beat goalie Martin Jones in the ninth round of a shootout to give the Anaheim Ducks a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Monday night.

Corey Perry, Cam Fowler and Brandon Montour also scored during the tiebreaker for Anaheim.

Joonas Donskoi, Tim Heed and Brent Burns had shootout goals for the Sharks. Tomas Hertl missed his attempt in the ninth round, leaving Vermette a chance to win it.

Perry and Rickard Rakell scored in regulation for the Ducks. Reto Berra made 40 saves in his first start of the season.

Donskoi had two goals for the Sharks, including the tying score in the third period. Jones stopped 28 shots.

Donskoi helped create his own goal by knocking the puck away from a Ducks defender and getting it to Logan Couture for a give-and-go as the Sharks took a 1-0 lead 3:31 into the game.

The Ducks came back in the second period to even the score 45 seconds in. After winning a faceoff in the San Jose zone, Brandon Montour sent a sharp pass to Perry's stick. Perry settled it and fired into the net for the equalizer.

Rakell gave the Ducks a 2-1 advantage midway through the second, just as a power play ended. Perry took a shot that bounced off Jones' pads, and Rakell knocked it into the net before Jones could cover up.

The Sharks snapped an 0-for-17 streak on the power play with a goal midway through the third to tie it. Donskoi tracked down a rebound and flipped it off Berra's right pad and into the net for his second career multi-goal game.

NOTES: Ducks D Cam Fowler returned to action after missing 12 games with a knee injury. ... Sharks C Melker Karlsson missed the game with an upper-body injury. ... Sharks forward Kevin Labanc, who hasn't played much recently, started on the top line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. Donskoi was moved to the second line. ... Ducks G Ryan Miller missed the game with a lower-body injury. Berra made his fourth appearance this season. ... Perry has seven points in his last five games. ... Rakell has a point in seven of his past eight games, with a total of 11 during that span. ... The Sharks scored their second power-play goal in eight November games.

UP NEXT

Ducks: Host the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday.

Sharks: Play at the Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday.