Breaking down Brent Burns’ Norris Trophy candidacy

For San Jose Sharks defenceman Brent Burns, facial hair is more than just a playoff's a year-round personal statement. And there’s a reason opponents – and even a few teammates – have come to “fear the beard”.

Discussions over who should take home the Norris Trophy this season as the National Hockey League’s top defenceman typically focus on two names: Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson.

Doughty’s Los Angeles Kings have bounced back from failing to make the postseason in 2014-15 to lead the Pacific Division and are currently challenging for first-place in the Western Conference.

Karlsson, last year’s Norris winner, is having another outstanding season, but sees his Ottawa Senators on the outside looking in while the team’s owner Eugene Melnyk is already signalling for changes as a disappointing campaign winds down.

The Doughty vs. Karlsson debate is a spirited one, with many pundits leaning toward the former based on his team’s performance and the fact that the all-world defenceman has never won the award that many feel he’s deserved in the past. Karlsson detractors will point to a flawed “he’s not as great defensively” narrative while the two-time Norris winner’s nightly play does the talking for him.

One player who's been overlooked in all of the Doughty-Karlsson talk is San Jose Sharks defenceman Brent Burns. Burns has set new offensive career highs across the board while helping the Sharks back into the playoff picture after their own disappointing end to the 2014-15 season.

It's likely that the race for the Norris will come down to one of Doughty or Karlsson, but there will be a third nominee. Let's examine Burns' candidacy for the award.

The best of Burns

Burns has bounced between playing forward and defence since arriving in the NHL with the Minnesota Wild in 2003. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound bearded mammoth set a career-high in goals (22) in 2013-14 while playing primarily on the wing with the Sharks.

San Jose shifted Burns back to the point last season and he finally appears to have solidified himself as an NHL blue-liner.

The 31-year-old has already established new career-highs this season in goals (26), assists (39), and points (65) and with nine games left on the schedule, he has a shot at eclipsing Sandis Ozolinsh's Sharks record for most goals in a single season by a defenceman. Burns is currently tied with the former all-star.

The counting stats are impressive, no doubt. Burns leads all NHL defencemen in goals and trails only Karlsson in points. Remarkably, only seven of Burns' 26 goals have come on the power play.

Here's a look at how Burns compares to Doughty and Karlsson by traditional offensive totals.

Player Goals Assists Points Plus/Minus PPP
Burns 26 39 65 -1 26
Doughty 14 33 47 23 22
Karlsson 13 61 74 -2 24

Doughty sits well back of Burns and Karlsson, but if the Norris Trophy was awarded based solely on offensive totals then Mike Green would own a pair of them.

Doughty is an outstanding defenceman, although the difference between his play in his own end compared to Karlsson's is drastically overstated. Plus-minus can be a nice jumping off point, but it hardly tells the whole story.

Analytically speaking...

What's a modern hockey conversation without a sprinkling of analytics? Wait, don't answer that.

Whether it's your bag or not, a look at some advanced metrics helps paint a more complete picture when comparing players. Of course, context is king...more on that later.

Here's how these three blue-liners stack up against one another using relative Corsi for, goals for percentage, and relative high-danger scoring chances for. All totals are score-adjusted for five-on-five scenarios and courtesy of

Player CF%Rel On-ice GF% HSCF%Rel
Burns 1.6 53.80% -2.7
Doughty 4.6 58.90% -0.3
Karlsson 6.8 48.90% 3.8

This is where some of the lustre on Burns' candidacy wears off. There are some important things to consider here, though.

For starters, Doughty enjoys the advantage of playing on a very good team. He's formed effective pairings with both Brayden McNabb and Jake Muzzin this season on the league's best possession team. The Sharks are nothing to sneeze at as a possession club, but the shot-attempt totals of Burns' defence partner, Paul Martin, crater when he's away from the big, bearded blue-liner. Burns is the one driving play at five-on-five in that pairing.

The Senators are a bottom-10 team in terms of possession and Karlsson is tasked with carrying Marc Methot with him for the bulk of his even-strength minutes. Karlsson is not of this world, so he makes it work.

Methot sports at 48 per cent Corsi for mark when paired with Karlsson compared to 40.7 per cent when they're apart. Karlsson's total climbs to 56 per cent when he's away from Methot.

In conclusion

Burns is having a great year, one that certainly warrants some consideration for individual hardware. The trouble with his candidacy is that he's just not in the same class as Doughty and Karlsson. Few are.

Blue-liners like Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators' Roman Josi, and Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins, to name a few, are all having Norris Trophy calibre seasons, too.

This could be Doughty's year, although his candidacy is certainly bolstered by some troubling reasoning. Not only is Karlsson a front-runner for the Norris, he should be in the conversation for the Hart Trophy, despite his team's disappointing play.

For now, let's all enjoy Burns' great play and run at a Sharks' record. He's the only defenceman in the league with a terracotta Chia bust modeled after him...and that's not nothing.