Brent Burns has a chance to move into the rarefied air of legendary defenceman Bobby Orr.
The 31-year-old from Barrie, Ont., could become only the second defenceman to ever win the Art Ross trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer, joining Orr who did it twice for the Boston Bruins — the last time in 1975.
With 64 points, Burns ranks third in the scoring race entering Wednesday’s action, only three points back of Connor McDavid for the overall lead.
"It’s out of this world," Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman said of Burns’s performance for the San Jose Sharks this season.
Burns is on pace for 37 goals and 88 points, totals that are practically unheard of for an NHL defenceman. Only two have ever hit both marks in the same season and they’re both Hall of Famers from earlier eras — Orr and Paul Coffey did it three times each.
No one has managed the feat in more than 30 years. Coffey was the last to do so with 48 goals and 138 points as an Oiler in the 1985-86 season.
Two-time Norris trophy winner Erik Karlsson has led NHL defencemen in scoring in four of the past five seasons, but he’s long since given up catching Burns this year and believes his heavily bearded counterpart will easily surpass the career-best 82 points he managed last year for the Ottawa Senators.
"What Burnsy’s doing is great," said Karlsson, 12 points back of Burns with 52 this year. "It’s good for the league. It’s good for everybody. It shows that it’s possible."
With 27 goals, more than the entire defence corps of 19 teams, Burns has scored almost three times as much as Karlsson and almost double the next closest defender, Montreal’s Shea Weber at 14. Burns should soon post only the 18th ever season of 30 goals by a defenceman and only the second since 1993. Mike Green managed 31 for the Washington Capitals in ’08-09.
While Green got a whole bunch of his goals (18) on the power play, Burns has scored 20-of-27 at even-strength as a shot-firing monster from everywhere on the ice. He leads the league with 243 shots, which doesn’t include the 112 attempts (also tops in the NHL) that missed: four hitting the post; 13 going over the net; another 95 gone wide.
"He gets away that shot so quickly," Hedman said. "It’s not usually the big wind-up and the big slap-shot, it’s usually a good wrister with traffic in front."
Hedman said if he could steal elements of Burns’ game for himself it would be that shot and "his beard, too."
Former Sharks teammate Roman Polak said it wasn’t just the quality of the shot that made Burns so dangerous as a scorer, it was also his propensity to fire it from anywhere as often as possible. Now with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Polak recalled a December tilt against San Jose in which Burns had 15 attempts on goal.
"The puck is on the wall and he just one-times it from the wall — it doesn’t matter," said Polak. "And he’s very accurate with the shot too."
Burns is actually shooting a bit less than last year — when he had 27 goals and 75 points, both career-highs — but his shooting accuracy has spiked to what would be a career-best of 11.2 per cent. He often catches goaltenders by surprise with a rapid release from somewhere inside the blue line.
Burns has scored 12 of his goals with the wrist shot Hedman so adores, seven each with the slapshot and snap-shot and another with the backhand.
While he’s thought to be unique in NHL terms for that wildly expanding beard and goofy personality, it’s more the package Burns comes in that sets him apart. He’s not only humongous at six foot five and 230 pounds, but moves with the grace and skill of the winger he was as recently as the 2013-14 season.
Burns isn’t just scoring himself. He’s on pace for a career-best 51 assists, already boasting 25 helpers at even-strength, tops for any defencemen this season. While not typically tasked with defending opposing top lines — Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun draw those duties — Burns does lead the Cup-contending Sharks in ice time at 25 minutes per-game.
He’s been an effective second-unit penalty killer too.
Burns looks more and more like a lock to win the Norris as the league’s top defenceman, but Sharks captain Joe Pavelski believes he’s also worthy of Hart consideration — a trophy defencemen almost never win.
Chris Pronger was the last defenceman to win league MVP in 2000, and he was the first since Orr in 1972. Given the potentially historic nature of his campaign it might be hard to overlook Burns this time around.
"He means as much to our team, I think, as any of those other guys to any team so definitely would like to get him that vote," Pavelski said. "I don’t know why not. He’s been complete for us this year for sure."