Sharks’ Burns moving past defensive criticism with world-class play

Joe Thornton had a goal and an assist as the San Jose Sharks took Game 1 over the Colorado Avalanche 5-2.

SAN JOSE – More than a month after Drew Doughty ripped into the defensive abilities of Brent Burns, his comments still resonate in northern California.

Doughty’s suggestion Burns “gets beat three times a game” was particularly topical following the Sharks’ Game 1 win over Colorado, when the 34-year-old was paired with Marc-Edouard Vlasic with an eye on shutting down Nathan MacKinnon.

Not only did the duo limit MacKinnon to one power-play assist in a 5-2 win, Burns also broke a team playoff record with the first four-point outing by a defenceman. His goal and three assists also made him the franchise’s all-time leading scorer amongst defencemen, moving him ahead of Dan Boyle.

“He’s a Norris Trophy candidate, so it’s not an aberration – he’s been great all year,” said Sharks coach Peter DeBoer. “And the people that wrote about his defensive play … I think the last three games of the Vegas series and then MacKinnon (in Game 1), he has been all-world defensively. He has been invaluable for us in doing what he does and doing what we, in our room, know he’s capable of doing and playing at a really high level.”

Having seen MacKinnon take over the series against Calgary, DeBoer knew it would take a special pair to stop Great Nate. He chose to pair Burns with Vlasic.

It’s an assignment Vlasic has specialized in over the years, but one Burns was asked to take on because, well, he’s once again a Norris Trophy finalist.

“People like to have something to say about peoples’ game, but when you’re a skilled player and a smart player you can play any type of situation,” said fellow Norris winner, Erik Karlsson.

“He’s an example of that. At the end of the day it’s all about making reads and being in the right position and for that his hockey IQ is just as high as anybody else. Just because he does great things offensively and gets a lot of credit for that doesn’t mean he’s not equally as good defensively.”

Brenden Dillon concurs.

“I think the biggest thing for Burnsie is his offensive skills are so good his defensive play gets overlooked because you see a guy who is so good, puts up so many points, is so great on the power play, has such an unbelievable shot, they forget how good his stick is, they forget he’s 6-foot-5, 240 pounds. Just a big guy and when you go into the corners or in front of the net with him he’s not an easy guy to out-battle for a puck.”

While in a particularly feisty mood in Calgary last month, Doughty’s annual war of words with Matthew Tkachuk suddenly included a run at Burns.

“All you’ve got to do is watch one San Jose Sharks game and you’ll see Brent Burns get beat three times a game, literally, and everybody has him up for the Norris. I just don’t get it,” Doughty told Sportsnet.

“I would want (Mark) Giordano on my team before I’d want those points guys. Giordano has like 75 points or something and he plays good defense. From me, based on how I know he plays, I think he should be the front-runner.”

Given the fact both DeBoer and Karlsson alluded to Doughty’s comments unprovoked on Saturday, it’s pretty clear Doughty’s words stung around here.

“For guys in this room, and I think even for him too, it’s kind of water under the bridge and it didn’t really affect him much,” said Dillon, who admitted it bothered him personally.

“It does a little bit, but at the end of the day there are so many different opinions on everybody. Doughty is a first-class player and he’s one of my favourite d-men to watch. I have a lot of respect for him – look at his resume and what he’s done.

“Guys get emotional and say those kind of things, but for us in the room we’re very fortunate to have a guy like that on this team. I see how much he works on his defensive game every practice. Throughout the years he’s a guy out there killing penalties and out there against top lines.

He can get the job done in all situations. I think he’s underrated in all the things he can do.”

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A forward who was converted to a defenceman long after he joined Minnesota as a first-round draft pick, Burns scored 16 goals and once again finished the season leading all defencemen with 83 points. He also fired 300 shots on goal for the fourth-straight year.

Although he went through the motions following practice Saturday, Burns wasn’t particularly interested in talking to the media about anything, including a simple shrug when asked of his latest Norris nomination.

Fact is, his play has done most of his talking, as he played almost 40 minutes in the Game 7 against Vegas. In Game 6 he played 42 minutes.

“The great thing about him is he’s taking what they’re giving him,” said DeBoer.

“In the Vegas series they stood beside him so he checked the offensive side of his game and defended and did a fantastic job against (Mark) Stone’s line. If they’re going to give him room he’s going to create offence.”

He did that Friday against Colorado when he made a world-class move at the blue line to create space and take a shot that wound up being collected and fired home by Gustav Nyquist to tie the game 1-1.

Do the knocks on his defensive game drive him?

“Of course it does,” said DeBoer.

“That’s what people do – they pick holes in peoples’ game. I get that’s part of the job, but it’s hard not to take that personally for sure.”

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