There has been quite a bit of deliberation amongst the hockey community over the past few years as to whether the likes of Brent Burns and Dustin Byfuglien are better suited up front as forwards or on the blueline as defencemen. The fact that there’s even a worthwhile discussion to be had is a testament to how freakishly gifted and unique those two players are, that they can be effective in both circumstances.
While I think there’s little to no doubt at this point that the latter is a far more valuable weapon on the back-end, Burns’ most optimal deployment is a slightly less cut-and-dried situation.
It’s difficult to shake the memories of how dominant Burns was during his tenure as a forward spanning parts of two seasons stretching from 2012 to 2014. The tour de force showing he had on Joe Thornton’s wing was something to marvel at. Next to one of the game’s most gifted and established playmakers Burns quickly became one of the league’s most prolific goal scorers himself. In their one full season together during the ’13-’14 campaign, the Sharks as a team controlled 60.2% of all shot attempts and 63.6% of all goals scored at 5v5 when the dominant duo was out there. Given the esteem in which NHL teams hold “power forwards”, it seems odd that the Sharks would’ve willingly stripped themselves of one like they have since then.
Though maybe it’s just further reinforcement that a “puck-moving defensemen”, another prototype buzz word hockey types spit out frequently, is just as highly sought after. I’m of two minds when it comes to ‘Brent Burns, The Defenseman’. The aforementioned opportunity cost of not being able to utilize him as a force of nature up front next to your best player is certainly a sticking point. As is the double-edged sword of his freewheeling propensity for playing as a rover, which occasionally leaves him out of position and has surely led to his unseemly -18 penalty differential since the start of last season.
Still, I’m always a proponent of playing your best players as much as possible (at least until you start to hit the point of diminishing returns, Mike Yeo!). And there’s little doubt that Burns’ dynamic abilities are one of San Jose’s biggest weapons offensively. While he was playing nearly 24 minutes a night last season, that now pales in comparison to how much new bench boss Pete DeBoer has been relying on Burns early on.
His 25:49 average ice-time is the 5th highest total in the entire league, just behind fellow prolific blueliners in Kris Letang, Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Ryan Suter, and Alex Pietrangelo. At 5v5, only Suter and Travis Hamonic are playing more.
The thing that pops off of the page for him more than anything else, though, is the ludicrous amount of shots he’s generating thus far. Through November 3rd’s slate of games, Burns’ 53 shots on goal are improbably more than anyone other than Tyler Seguin has registered this season. Justin Faulk and his 42 shots make him the only other defensemen in the same stratosphere, really.
While the season is still incredibly young and there’s plenty of room for things to reverse course, the current pace Burns is on in this regard is unlike anything we’ve seen in quite some time. According to the invaluable Hockey Reference, there have only been 31 individual seasons where a defenseman fired at least 300 shots on target:
For those scoring at home Ray Bourque did it 10 times, Al MacInnis did it 6 times, Bobby Orr did it 5 times, and Paul Coffey did it 3 times. Those were quite the days. Conveniently enough, Burns’ contemporary in Dustin Byfuglien did it himself during his first season in Atlanta. He’s the only member of the illustrious club above to have done it in the 21st century.
Burns’ current pace has him at 362 shots over an 82-game season, which would not only get his name onto the list above but vault him easily into the top-10. Hockey is a game full of unpredictable bounces, which is why I’ve always found myself being partial to players who generate a high rate of shots. As long as you’re putting yourself into a position to succeed, that’s all that you can really ask for.
Setting the cut-off at 300 is obviously rather arbitrary and surely leaves otherwise worthy inclusions to the list behind. For example, Erik Karlsson’s 292 shots on goal last season aren’t anything to scoff at. But round numbers are easier to deal with for fun, simple exercises such as this one.
Assuming Burns continues to be asked to shoulder this heavy a workload and have as much of the Sharks offence run through him, he should once again find himself atop nearly every offensive category for defencemen much like he did last season. The near 20 goals and 60 points he reached in 2014-15 seem very attainable, barring injury or a significant change in circumstances. Especially if he continues to fire away at anything even remotely resembling his early season rate.
While the alternative for Burns is certainly still alluring, it’s difficult to argue with the output he has been generating in his current incarnation. Even if not every single ounce of juice is being squeezed out of the orange. Maybe he’s just a very good hockey player regardless of where he’s being used?