Under Pressure: Brent Burns

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This post is part of Sharks Day on PHT…

Brent Burns‘ path to stardom is almost as wild as his beard and almost as odd as his sense of style.

Odd path for an odd guy

Let’s not forget that there were very reasonable arguments made in favor of forward being his ideal position, even as recently as his early days with the San Jose Sharks.

Burns was traded to the Sharks almost exactly six years ago (June 24, 2011) in a deal that sent Devin Setoguchi and Charlie Coyle to Minnesota. As nice a player as Coyle is, Wild fans could be excused for closing a browser in disgust at the mere mention of that move.

Then again, at that time, Burns’ value was at a low point. He had been limited by injuries, only playing 59 games in 2008-09 and 47 games in 2009-10. His final campaign with Minnesota was healthier (46 points in 80 games), but the results were relatively modest … and really, he didn’t make a huge jump until 2013-14, even if there were signs of the star he’d become.

Tough pace to maintain

That breakthrough was shockingly brilliant, and rare as Burns is.

His totals alone have been spell-binding:

2013-14: 22 goals, 48 points in 69 games
2014-15: 17 goals, 60 points in 82 games
2015-16: 27 goals, 75 points in 82 games
2016-17: 29 goals, 76 points in 82 games, culminating with him winning his first Norris Trophy.

That’s a heck of a story, and chances are, Burns will not be bothered by the idea of being “under pressure.”

Still, there’s reason to be just a touch concerned that a dip – but hopefully not a dive – is coming.

Age, injury risks, other potential obstacles

For one thing, Burns is playing on a level that’s incredibly difficult to sustain in this era. Full-fledged forwards with big minutes struggle to generate 22+ goals in three of four seasons, let alone defensemen.

As you can see, he’s also played all 82 regular-season games for three straight seasons. For a big dude, you wonder if the injury bug might bite.

Especially since Burns is older than some might realize.

Despite managing the rare feat of jumping straight to the NHL at 18, Burns’ development suffered because of those injuries, so it might be surprising for some that he’s already 32.

Burns earned his big contract with this four-year run of outstanding play, but the bottom line is that he’ll face increasing scrutiny as an $8 million man than he did making $5.76M.

Blame game?

If age and injuries don’t ratchet up the intensity, the Sharks lost Marleau and there’s the possibility that Joe Thornton may finally slow down considering the huge mileage he’s accrued as a Hall-of-Fame-caliber player.

This is a generally aging team, and a fairly top-heavy one at that, so things could get hairy if San Jose needs Burns to be a defenseman who flirts with 30 goals and a point-per-game pace.

And, as tough as it is to score at a great clip as a player gets older, there’s at least some concern that people might be more critical of his defensive game.

This isn’t to say that Burns is a bad blueliner. Really, he ranges between good to superb by just about every metric.

Instead, there’s evidence that Marc-Edouard Vlasic, a truly elite guy in his own zone, boosts other Sharks defensemen, as Tyler Dellow argues for The Athletic (subscription required).

Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – teams put guys with bigger paychecks in tougher situations because of said paychecks. It’s understandable, yet it can also make for tougher sledding.

If such a scenario occurs in San Jose and Burns gets (ahem) burned quite often, the knives might be sharper considering his bigger checks. That’s especially true if the Sharks regress, which is a real risk considering their aging roster.

***

Look, the naked truth is that it’s tough to bet against Burns.

There are elements of his game – his size, his shot, a hockey IQ that might sneak up on you thanks to the caveman aesthetic – that are likely to age well.

Even so, expectations can be cruel to a player, particularly one coming off a Norris Trophy win and entering a higher tax bracket.