Brent Burns finished third in Norris Trophy voting last season and is a frontrunner to win it in 2016-17, thanks in part to better play in his own end.
The top two contenders for the Norris Trophy met last week and it was like a heavyweight fight. We’re going to give the decision to Erik Karlsson, since his Ottawa Senators won the game and he had a goal and two assists. But Brent Burns served his notice, too, with a mind-boggling 13 shot attempts, a goal of his own and 26:46 in ice time to lead all players on both teams.
Not to get ahead of ourselves here, but tomorrow night should be spectacular. Burns and Karlsson, Part II, goes tomorrow night in Ottawa, where the head-to-head battle for the Norris will add another chapter. Not that anyone associated with either team will talk about it because everything is always, always about team. Yawn.
“These two guys put on a show in that game,” said Sharks color analyst and former NHL defenseman Bret Hedican. “It was awesome.”
That Burns and Karlsson have distinguished themselves as the leading contenders for the Norris will draw the ire of those who believe the award should not go to a rearguard who puts up boffo numbers. But that would conveniently ignore the fact that players such as Burns and Karlsson, by being so dominant in creating offense and moving the puck out of their own end, provide a unique version of great defensive play by not allowing the opponent to have the puck. After all, why should Burns be penalized for having the puck on his stick all the time?
It would also ignore the fact that Burns has grown into being a far better player in his own end in the past two seasons. And nobody knows that better than Burns’ defensive partner Paul Martin, who sees a player who is much less prone to chasing his mistakes and trying to do everything while accomplishing little.
“He’s so strong and quick and he’s able to get to places where someone else won’t,” Martin said. “I think for him now, he’s more patient about when to go and when not to go to make it easy on himself where he doesn’t have to be running around. He’s a guy who always wants to make a play and do something to make a difference. I think people said before that defensively he tried to do to much, but he’s in his 30s now and I think he’s really come into his own as that two-way kind of player.”
Pairing with Martin, as responsible a defensive player as you’re going to find in the NHL, helps a lot. Prior to Martin arriving, Burns was adjusting to going back to defense permanently and was playing primarily with rookie Mirco Mueller. “There’s no doubt Paul Martin has helped his game, but he’s matured in his game, too,” said Sharks coach Peter DeBoer. “A couple of years ago, he was a veteran guy being asked to work with a young guy and that was a lot on his plate when you’re asking an offensive guy to carry the offensive load and be a stabilizing force to break in a young partner. I think what Paul Martin allowed him to do was to have not worry about that responsibility and concentrate on his own game.”
And it’s showing. Burns finished a fairly distant third behind Drew Doughty and Karlsson in the Norris Trophy race last season and posted a career-high 75 points. This season he’s on pace for 73 points and leads the Sharks in goals with 12 and is tied for first in points with Joe Pavelski. Last season, Burns had a career-high 353 shots on goal and this season he’s on pace for 351. His offensive contribution is all the more impressive considering the Sharks are having a terrible time scoring goals this season, sitting 21st in the league in scoring with just 2.43 goals per game. The Sharks, incidentally, are the only team in the NHL that has failed to score five goals in a game this season.
Martin brought up a good point. He said that the Norris Trophy is one of those awards where a player has to establish himself in that category before he wins it. And he’s right. Nicklas Lidstrom didn’t win his first Norris Trophy until he was 31, then he went on to win six more of them. There were years when Doughty was probably better than he was last season, yet he only won his first Norris in 2015-16.
When it comes to Burns’ teammates, there’s no doubt who is the best defenseman in the world is. “In my humble opinion, he’s probably the most dominant player in the game the past couple of years,” Joe Thornton said. “Being 6-foot-5 and 235 (pounds) is a pretty good start. He always has the puck and he’s so tough to defend and guys don’t want to play against him because he’s so strong and he just throws guys aside. He gets out of his own zone quick and gets in the offensive zone and that’s a forward’s dream.”
One person you haven’t heard from yet is Burns, a guy who gravitates toward the microphones and always has something interesting to say. But on this day in Toronto, he made it clear he would be available only for five minutes and didn’t seem to move off the script much. It was one of the few things Burns hasn’t had anything to say, either on the ice or off.