John Gibson

Why Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson are so good in eyes of NHL All-Star goalies


Why Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson are so good in eyes of NHL All-Star goalies

SAN JOSE -- Jimmy Howard hasn’t played against the Sharks this season, but he knows what’s coming. 

The Detroit Red Wings goaltender won’t face San Jose until a Feb. 24 matinee, when he will get his first glimpse at the two-pronged attack emanating from the Sharks’ blue line. 

Just what does he expect when he’ll see All-Star defensemen Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson on the same team?

“Oof, I don’t know,” Howard said last week at All-Star media day. “I’ve watched some games, they look like quite the dual threat there.”

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson envisioned as much when he acquired Karlsson in September's blockbuster trade. San Jose entered the season with two Norris Trophy winners, something not seen since Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger starred for the Anaheim Ducks a decade ago. 

Despite Karlsson’s slow start offensively, he and Burns entered Thursday fifth (43) and first (55), respectively, in points among defensemen. For the third time in franchise history -- and the first in 10 years -- the Sharks have two blue-liners with 40-plus points ... with 30 games remaining.

So, what makes the two so effective? We turned to some of the best players tasked with stopping them, and asked three of the NHL’s All-Star goalies for their thoughts. 

[RELATED: Sharks' health on defense could play big role in final months]

Plenty of time

It’s a simple notion, but part of the challenge in stopping Burns and Karlsson is how much they play. When two offensively gifted players are given ample ice time, the points should follow.

“Usually when we play San Jose,” Anaheim Ducks netminder John Gibson said, “one of the two [is] always on the ice for just about all of the time. If you deal with one, then you’ve got to deal with the other one back-to-back.” 

Entering the All-Star break, Karlsson (24:59) was 11th in average ice time in the NHL, while Burns was 14th (24:42). Their usage isn't necessarily uncommon, as the Sharks are one of four teams that play two defensemen for at least 24 minutes per night. 

What is noteworthy, however, is that both players are actually playing less than in recent years. Burns’ ice time is his lowest since Peter DeBoer took over as head coach in 2015. Karlsson, meanwhile, is playing less than any year of his career except his first two.

It helps, then, that they’re making the most of their time on the rink.

[RELATED: Goaltending questions loom over Sharks in stretch run]

Lots of shots

Since the NHL realigned in 2013, Howard faced off against Karlsson’s Ottawa Senators 12 times. In those matchups, he said he became quite familiar with the Swedish defenseman’s offensive style.

“I know how shifty he can be on the blue line,” Howard said, “how he can slide [the puck along] and get wrist shots through. He’s very, very deceptive that way and he can skate like the wind.”

Almost 55 percent of Karlsson’s unblocked shot attempts this season are wrist shots, compared to just under 50 percent for defensemen as a whole, according to MoneyPuck's shot data. Of the defensemen who have taken more unblocked wristers than Karlsson (125), only Mark Giordano was more reliant on the shot. 

Burns has taken more wrist shots than Karlsson, but power is a bigger part of his offensive game in Howard's eyes.

“He's more of a physical presence than Erik,” Howard continued, “and he’s got a lot of heavier shot. He can really fire the puck, but he can also really skate.”

The 32-year-old leads the league with 114 unblocked slap shots, and those comprise just over 40 percent of his unblocked attempts. As of Wednesday, slap shots accounted for approximately one-third of all shots taken by NHL defensemen this season.

Yet the different approaches have led to similar results. No defensemen attempt 5-on-5 shots at a higher rate than Burns and Karlsson, and both players shoot from all over the ice.

“[You’re] just sometimes trying to find the puck, block their shots and hoping for the best,” Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said with a laugh.

As he noted moments later, that’s easier said than done. 

Creating space

Vasilevskiy said that it can be difficult to get a clean view of Burns and Karlsson’s shots, since the Sharks are effective at blocking goalies’ vision.  

“They’re moving so fast on the blue line, it can be harder to [track the puck],” Vasilevskiy said. “Especially when there’s a couple of guys in front of the net.” 

Howard added that Burns and Karlsson’s ability on the puck can allow the Sharks’ forwards more time to screen an opposing goalie. This season, they’ve taken advantage of it. 

Entering Wednesday, five Sharks forwards were among the top 20 in deflections, according to MoneyPuck. Joe Pavelski was also fourth in tips (45), while Timo Meier (26) was tied for 16th. 

[RELATED: Sharks' offense has impressed, but a makeover is possible]

Burns and Karlsson open up opportunities for San Jose’s forward corps when they aren’t parked in front of opposing netminders, too. Take, for instance, a goal the Sharks scored against Vasilevskiy on Jan. 5. 

When Burns had an odd-man opportunity after gathering a turnover, Vasilevskiy had to respect the defenseman’s shot. That left Joe Pavelski wide open in the slot for a back-door pass, with a gaping net in front of him. 

As a result of the ice each of the two can open up, Burns and Karlsson are picking up primary assists at (or around) the highest rates of their respective careers, both in 5-on-5 situations and on the power play. That alone gives opposing goaltenders plenty to worry about. 

But when you take it all together? The Sharks have a dynamic few teams can match, according to Howard. 

“If I was a San Jose Sharks fan, I’d be really happy with those two on the back end,” he said.

Sidney Crosby, Sharks' rivals take San Jose's NHL All-Star Game boos in stride

Sidney Crosby, Sharks' rivals take San Jose's NHL All-Star Game boos in stride

SAN JOSE -- The boos followed John Tavares throughout the NHL’s All-Star Weekend.

The Toronto Maple Leafs center heard them when he was introduced at Media Day on Thursday in front of a few hundred fans. He heard them again when he was introduced in front of thousands more at SAP Center before Friday’s skills competition, and then again ahead of Saturday’s All-Star Game.

Tavares, of course, opted not to sign with the 2019 NHL All-Star Game's hosts in free agency last summer.

“I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but [they’re] obviously a very proud fan base,” he said after the Atlantic Division was eliminated in Saturday’s All-Star semifinal. “They love their Sharks, and they always create a great environment … when you come to play here on the road.

“I wasn’t the only one, so I wasn’t too lonely.”

A collection of Pacific Division rivals and San Jose’s playoff tormentors kept Tavares company. 

Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty smiled and waved to the crowd when his name was booed ahead of the skills competition. He was treated to more boos Saturday, as was John Gibson.

The Anaheim Ducks goaltender brought out the boo-birds, then the Bronx cheers after giving up seven goals to the Central Division in Saturday’s other semifinal. The Pacific Division, headlined by Sharks All-Stars Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Joe Pavelski, was headed for an early elimination, and the home crowd was not happy.

They chanted for Marc-Andre Fleury to come into the game as the first period wound down ... minutes after they also booed the Vegas Golden Knights goaltender’s introduction.

“Big emotions, right? Ups and downs,” Fleury joked. “I’ve been in John’s shoes. I think Columbus had the [2015 NHL All-Star Game], and I got booed and people were yelling to get me out of there. It’s not an easy place to be in.”

[RELATED: Karlsson stays mum on injury status, Sharks contract talks]

Fleury relied on his experience as an All-Star with the Pittsburgh Penguins playing in hostile territory, and embraced SAP Center's icy reception Saturday. When he received his own Bronx cheer after he made his first save, Fleury waved to the crowd with his glove hand.

“[I] just wanted to say thank you to the fans,” he quipped.

[RELATED: Matthews reveals plan for Marleau All-Star jersey he wore]

And then there was Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins superstar was absent with an illness Friday, but the announcement of that absence was booed. He was booed in the building Saturday, and opened the scoring for the Metropolitan Division 15 seconds in against the Atlantic. 

Crosby scored three more goals across two games, and was booed (at least) three more times. The Metropolitan All-Stars emerged victorious, and Crosby was booed one last time when he was voted All-Star Game MVP. 

He won another MVP award on the SAP Center ice about 18 months prior, receiving the Conn Smythe Trophy after his Penguins eliminated the Sharks on home ice in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. After seeing the reception Pittsburgh teammate Kris Letang received Friday, Crosby said he knew what he was in for the next day. 

Not that he didn’t understand why.

“They’re great fans here,” Crosby said. “Playing in playoffs here and even during the regular season over the years, it’s a tough place to play, and they love their team here. … Obviously you’d rather get cheered than booed. But at the same time, I know they’re passionate fans and they’ve got a good memory.”

Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle played alongside Tavares and against Crosby on Saturday. He said he had to be filled in about San Jose’s displeasure with Tavares, and a reporter told him during his press conference about the Sharks’ playoff history with the Penguins.

With that in mind, was he surprised Sharks fans were in regular-season mode during a trio of midseason exhibitions? 

“There’s no nights off for the fans,” Yandle said. “They’re ready.”