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.

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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' fourth line must keep rolling to force decisive Game 7 vs. Vegas

Sharks' fourth line must keep rolling to force decisive Game 7 vs. Vegas

SAN JOSE – Sure, it’s something of a cliché to say a team has to “roll four lines” in order to be successful. But it’s true. When the Sharks have been at their best this season, it’s because their depth has shown through. 

In their crucial Game 5 victory over the Golden Knights on Thursday evening, San Jose’s depth was a key factor yet again, with their fourth line putting on a show. It’s something Team Teal needs if the Sharks are going to play past the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, especially since their current opponent also has a fourth line that can have an impact on the game.

“I thought those guys were good,” Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said of the trio of Barclay Goodrow, Melker Karlsson and Joonas Donskoi. “They’re getting some effective minutes from their fourth line, whether it’s on the scoresheet or just softening up the next group going out there. We have to do the same thing and I thought those guys did.”

When asked about his line’s performance, Goodrow told the press they accomplished what any fourth line should.

“You just look to create energy,” he said. “We want to spend as much time in the offensive zone as possible. Hold onto pucks, create cycles, make plays.”

Goodrow and Karlsson have been staples on that fourth line since the start of the regular season, while Donskoi only recently joined them after an injury took Micheal Haley out of the lineup. While Donskoi didn’t get on the scoresheet in Game 5, his hard work was rewarded when DeBoer moved him up the lineup in the third frame. 

“I thought Donskoi was on,” DeBoer said. “He had good jump, he had good energy, he was inside.”

Of course, the biggest contribution the fourth line made was in the second stanza when Goodrow found the back of the net. San Jose was holding onto a 2-1 lead when the fourth-line center redirected a Justin Braun shot from up top to give the Sharks a much-needed two-goal cushion.

“That’s a big goal for us by Goodie at that point,” DeBoer said of the goal, which was also Goodrow’s first playoff marker. “We needed that.” 

The goal also countered the attack of Vegas’ fourth line, which thrives off of strong physical play and knocking their opponent around. Goodrow’s line was able to halt that attack by playing a more offense-forward game.

“Whenever you can keep their fourth line out of your end, it kind of limits their physicality,” Goodrow summarized.

[RELATED: Why two-day break before Game 6 is crucial for Sharks]

San Jose will need those fourth-line contributions to continue if they’re going to have success Sunday when the series returns to Las Vegas.

They have yet to hold a lead at T-Mobile Arena, and the fourth line has yet to contribute to the Sharks’ cause in a game played in that building. But if they can put forward the same effort they did in Game 5, the Sharks are going to have a much better chance at bringing the series back to San Jose for Game 7.

Banged up Sharks making full use of two-day break ahead of Game 6 in Vegas

Banged up Sharks making full use of two-day break ahead of Game 6 in Vegas

SAN JOSE – Up until this point in the first round, the Sharks and Golden Knights have squared off every other night. Now, after staving off elimination with a crucial Game 5 victory, Team Teal has a whopping two days to prepare for Game 6 back in Las Vegas.

“We have two days now,” Tomas Hertl said after San Jose’s 5-2 victory. “Have to take a little breath and rest and be ready for that.”

This isn’t to say that San Jose is playing at any more of a grueling pace than other teams in the playoffs. But bumps and bruises are quite common this time of year. Marc-Edouard Vlasic missed two straight playoff games after being hit by a puck during Game 2, Erik Karlsson is still bouncing back from a regular- season injury -- heck, Logan Couture is the second player who has had to make a trip to the dentist after losing teeth during a game.

Between the ailments being common and the current series being incredibly physical, getting an extra 24 hours in between games is a big help, Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer told the media on Friday morning following.

“We’ve got to use it to get rest, to get guys healthy,” DeBoer said, before adding: “But also to prepare. I think we’re going to have to find another level in our game obviously to win Game 6 in there. That’s what the two days have to be used for, too.”

DeBoer isn’t wrong. The Sharks haven’t faired well in many of their visits to the Knights’ home barn, particularly during the current best-of-seven series. San Jose was outscored 11-3 in Games 3 and 4 at T-Mobile Arena and went 1-for-7 on the power play, which is not good when you’re trying to defeat a team that is stealthy at capitalizing on their opponents mistakes. While their Game 5 performance was a vast improvement – they finally kept that Pacioretty-Stastny-Stone line off the scoreboard, for starters – they still need to use the two days prep for Game 6 wisely.

Plus, Vegas gets that time to prepare as well.

“They get the same luxury,” Karlsson pointed out, before adding that San Jose isn’t putting too much thought into what the other team is doing. “I think our biggest focus is on ourselves and what we have to do to be successful.”

[RELATED: Five observations from Game 5 win]

After finding that success on their home ice, the Sharks are even more motivated to put on a good showing in Sin CIty on Easter Sunday, forcing a Game 7 back in San Jose. It's no easy feat, but two days worth of prep can help.

"We know it will be really hard, but we are ready for this challenge," Hertl said on Friday morning. "We want to show them we can beat them there too."