22 January, 14:18

NHL 1-on-1: Brent Burns, Sharks swing man tilts the ice

NHL 1-on-1: Brent Burns, Sharks swing man tilts the ice

By David Kerans

WASHINGTON (VR)— Sometimes a number is worth a thousand pictures.

And here's a number (or two) that speaks volumes: NHL scorekeepers have credited San Jose Sharks RW Brent Burns with delivering 75 hits so far this season, while receiving only 19 himself. Burns's 4:1 hitting ratio far outstrips even power forwards like LA's Dwight King (1.2:1), BOS's Milan Lucic (2.2:1), and STL's Ryan Reaves (3.3:1). Burns's hitting is not setting any records--BUF's Steve Ott also has a 4:1 hitting ratio, for example. But the physical force of this 6'5” forward presents huge problems to NHL defenses, and serves to imbalance games in SJ's favor.

Burns flattens Doughty

Burns flattens Doughty (from 2013 playoffs) Photo credit: © Harry How / AFP

Hockey has come a long way from the intimidation fests of the 1970s, and Brent Burns has far more to offer than body checks. He is one of very few NHLers to master play both at forward and on defense. This is a theme we explore with him in our interview (transcript below), and it testifies to Burns's proficiency as a skater and his hockey sense. In SJ coach Todd McLellan's mind, these skills warrant deploying Burns on his top line, with C Joe Thornton and LW Joe Pavelski, and the results speak for themselves.


Coach McLellan with Burns (Thornton on left, Pavelsky on right) Photo credit: © Joel Auerbach / AFP

When playing 5-on-5 in close-score situations, Burns, Thornton, and Pavelski help SJ generate about six shooting attempts to every four they concede (Burns and Thornton are above this rate, Pavelski below; SJ as a team out-attempts opponents 54-46 in those situations). The Sharks top line is one of the most productive in the NHL, averaging 2.9 points per game, and that production has carried SJ to a 32-12-6 record after 50 games, fifth best in the league.

Too quiet on the PP

Interestingly, Burns has not contributed to SJ’s league leading penalty differential—as a recent analysis on SJ blogsite Fear the Fin detailed, the team has had the most power play chances in the NHL this year, and has been shorthanded the fewest times. Burns has committed as many penalties as he has drawn. We doubt SJ is concerned about that. But Burns's power play production has been mystifingly low. He gets almost two minutes of PP time per game, but has only one goal and three assists on the PP this year. We expect SJ will spend some time working with Burns on power play situations; boosting his productivity there would make this team even more formidable.
Burns easy power

Effortless power: Burns shrugs off Yandle, eyes the slot Photo credit: © Christian Petersen / AFP

Out of uniform, Burns is renowned for a menagerie of reptiles and birds he cultivated during his first years as a professional, with the Minnesota Wild. Less well known is his commitment to charities focused on men in uniform, a topic we explored with him in our interview. As well, Burns stands out as an avid reader. We made the most of a few minutes we had with him in a crowded but relaxed SJ locker room, and concluded that he is the type of free spirit with whom we could have easily chatted for a long time.

NHL 1-on-1: Brent Burns, beyond the zoo

Kerans: I’d like to ask a few questions about your past, about your career, and something very unusual in the National Hockey League: you have been able to play both positions, defense and forward. I was watching a game 20 years ago and saw a forward playing defense on the powerplay get burned because he couldn’t skate backwards with the agility that a defenseman is supposed to have {it was Bernie Nicholls, then with LA}. How did they spot the fact that you could play defense as well as forward? Had you done it a lot growing up?

Burns: I was drafted as a forward, so I’ve kind of been moving back and forth the last couple of years. I think it’s a good asset to have. I think when you are on the ice your D can be a little more aggressive because you can cover a little bit.

Kerans: Who was it that noticed that you had it in you to play D at the level of the National Hockey League? There’s not that many forwards who could even try it.

Burns: Jacques. Jacques Lemaire first put me back there. And I had Todd McLellan the next year and the first lockout. He played me on defense too.

Kerans: Jacques Lemaire, some people say, could be a Hall of Famer as a coach as well as a Hall of Fame player. We all know what he did as a player. What sort of influence did he have on you, other than choosing you as a defenseman? Was he really with you one-on-one and telling you a lot? Do you remember a lot from Lemaire? What was it like?

Burns: Yeah, he’s one of the greatest hockey minds, I think. He knows the game inside and out. It was great, he had a little more of an old school attitude, with making sure you’re on your toes all the time, and you learn to be professional, and do the little things. He was great to have as a young guy. And obviously I had Todd (McLellan) after my first year, so he’s very similar, along the same lines. He has a very detailed hockey mind, and it’s been great.

Kerans: Phil Housley in an interview said that Lemaire told him, in the short time he had with him, he said “Phil, I don’t want you to waste a lot of energy on the boards. Save your energy to be explosive later.” He may not have told you that, or maybe he did? Or maybe he told you something else that you really remember?

Burns: The big thing I remember is just having a good stick {being strong on the stick, keeping it in passing lanes, etc.—DK}. You can really control play a lot with your stick. I still take that to my game now.

Kerans: A casual fan might not notice that there might be equipment changes when you go to D. Maybe the bevel of your skates, maybe the stick itself. Any equipment changes for Brent Burns when you played D?

Burns: {chuckling} It’s a secret.

Kerans: Okay, I’ll accept that. There are a couple of charities you care a lot about. I’ll let you put into words which ones you care about most, what’s occupying your time.

Burns: Yeah, we do a lot with Defend the Blue Line. It’s a great charity for kids with military families. Maybe the kid has one or two parents who are overseas, and it doesn’t allow them to get to hockey camps, or get to the rink, or have the money to be in hockey. So it’s a pretty amazing charity. They’ve grown a lot over the five or six years we’ve been working with them, and it’s been great. I get to meet a lot of families, me and my wife too. At “Burnzie’s Battalion” at the Shark Tank we get a suite every year, and have military families come to games. Especially in California you get a lot of families that maybe aren’t exposed to hockey, but you get them to a couple of games--especially in the Shark Tank, it’s a great place to play, it’s a great experience, high energy.

Kerans: One of the biggest names in sports in the twentieth century was Ben Hogan, he was a super perfectionist. He was sitting down in a hotel once and they said “What more could a golfer need?” And he said “More sunlight.” They thought he was joking, but he said you need more sunlight, just to have more time to practice, to stay on top of your game. He wasn’t joking, he was like that, he was a perfectionist. You may be too, but even if you're not, let’s pretend you are. What would you want to improve for your game, if you had more time?

Burns: Well, I think everything. Skating is so big, you know, everybody’s got to be in tip-top shape all the time. And I mean everything—you can work on your passing, your vision, hockey sense, shooting, skating…

Kerans: You’re tall. Have you ever had a power skating coach, specifically?

Burns: Since I was young.

Kerans: Have you really?

Burns: Yup.

Kerans: And you still talk?

Burns: Yeah, Jari Byrski, at Sk8On in Toronto. I’ve been going to his camps, like a lot of other NHL guys, since I was young.

Burns agile

Burns plenty agile  Photo credit: © Frederick Breedon/AFP

Kerans: You said—or, I’ve heard—that you love to read. I can’t ask the question to everyone, but, anything that’s been on your mind recently, anything casual? Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest soccer players of all time, said he would take a book with him on every road trip in his career, but he never made it past page 20. I guess you’ve got more willpower than he does, but anything you want to share with us that you’ve been reading?

Burns: I read a lot. No Easy Day, Lone Survivor. I’ve been reading Inferno, and Game of Thrones right now. Harry Potter has been out there, I love that series. I love to read a lot of different things.

Kerans: Here’s a question I could ask you that I wouldn’t be so quick to ask every hockey player. It's my last question of the night. They walked up to Bryzgalov, an eccentric goaltender, and they asked “What would you be, Ilya, if you weren’t a goalkeeper?” And he said quickly, “I’d be an astronaut.” Next day they asked Kovalchuk, because they were playing against each other in the playoffs a couple of years ago, and he said--it was an endearing answer—he said right away, “I would be a taxi driver.” And they said “Why?” And he said “Because I like to help people out, and to meet a lot of people.” I’m not going to hold it to you, but if tonight I were to ask you what would you be if not a hockey player?

Burns: A Navy SEAL. Special forces.

Kerans: Canadian or US?

Burns: Well I think it would have to be probably in the Canadian, a Canadian sniper. I’ve always had an interest in that. But you know, coming down here, Navy SEALs are some of the best, so, some kind of special forces is what I’ve always wanted to be.

Kerans: We appreciate you joining us, and I want to wish you luck in the future.

Burns: Thank you, have a good night.

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