Brent Burns is an elite offensive defenseman, arguably one of the best in the entire NHL. He’s the 2016-17 Norris Trophy winner, he’s a six-time All Star, and he’s tallied at least 60 points five different seasons in the NHL. He’s also the point leader for the Sharks heading into the playoffs, the only defenseman with such distinction. All of these accolades (and the beard) tend to leave the hockey world enamored with the 6’5″ 230-pound goliath of a defenseman.
However, when you actually watch Brent Burns play, it’s not all rosy, and when you watch him play against the Golden Knights, it’s nothing short of dreadful.
There’s only one way to illustrate what I’m talking about because most of the issues come when Burns is away from the puck and that’s through video. When he has the puck, in any of the three zones, he’s usually good with it. He has a strong stick, he normally makes good decisions with the puck, and he’s an elite skater for his size when he’s skating forward.
But, when you watch what he does away from the puck, or what happens when he has to retreat into his own zone, or his positioning when the puck is turned over, you’ll start to see why he’s a liability against a team like Vegas.
Let’s start with a few videos, the tamer ones first.
In all three cases, the Golden Knights fired stretch passes directly aimed at Burns. Each time the Golden Knights ended up on the puck and they created a chance out of each of them. None of these resulted in goals, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t affect the game.
Because Burns is so offensively focused, he’s often caught too far up in the neutral zone and Vegas seems to seek it out. This is a key to how the Golden Knights like to play, and Burns plays right into it. Vegas is at its best when they are playing quickly and when they transition through the neutral zone with one pass. In all three plays shown, Burns aids that process.
Now let’s move on to another major issue Burns has when he plays against Vegas, getting caught on the wrong side of the puck. As a defenseman, it’s crucial that when a puck is turned over that you are closer to your goal than the puck is. Otherwise, it leads to odd-man rushes and/or forwards getting caught playing as defensemen. Here are two such instances, both from the same game, both that lead to Golden Knights goals.
To make it easier to see, I’ve taken a still shot of where Burns is on the ice the moment when the puck is possessed by Vegas.
In both, Burns is underneath the Vegas goal line, 200 feet away from the net he’s supposed to be defending.
These are just two instances where this happens, and they are magnified by the fact that the Golden Knights scored. However, this is commonplace for Burns, and even if they don’t lead to goals, they often lead to easy exits of the defensive zone and even easier entries to the offensive zone. Again, when the Golden Knights are at their best, they aren’t struggling to get out of their own zone and through the neutral zone. Burns’ poor positioning often aids the process for Vegas.
Now let’s get to some of the more egregious ones. First off, here’s a turnover in his own end that directly leads to a Golden Knights goal.
This is somewhat abnormal for Burns, but boy is it bad. He’s usually pretty good with the puck on his stick, but here, not so much.
In this one, Burns is just flat out beat in the neutral zone by Alex Tuch. Not surprisingly, the Golden Knights had just thrown a nearly identical stretch pass right at Burns moments before this, and it was just out of reach of the Golden Knight forward. This one was not, and Tuch had a glorious chance to score.
Finally, my favorite one. Tuch picks up the puck, cuts inside, and Burns looks like he’s stuck in mud.
In all three, the Golden Knights seek out Burns, and abuse him. Once in the defensive zone, once in the neutral zone, and one at the offensive blue line.
Burns has shockingly awful gap control for a defenseman that is on the ice for nearly half of every game (average TOI 25:06). Whether it’s being connected to a forward following a turnover or even just on a standard entry of the zone, Burns’ backward skating is constantly exposed by the Golden Knights and it’s a huge reason why Vegas averages 3.86 goals per game against the Sharks. Vegas is the team San Jose has allowed the most goals to each of the previous two seasons, and the 22 playoff goals are the most the Sharks have allowed in a series since the “Reverse Sweep” by the Kings in 2014.
One more video, but not because Burns did anything wrong necessarily, but instead because it’s hilarious and it furthers how much Vegas enjoys toying with the big guy.
Statistically, it doesn’t look like Burns is awful against the Golden Knights. In the playoff series, he scored twice, had three assists, individually created 15 scoring chances and drew a penalty. His Corsi was a stellar 59.95% and the Sharks created 38 more scoring chances than Vegas with Burns on the ice.
However, when you dig deeper, it’s not hard to figure out why. Burns started 78.5% of his shifts in the offensive zone. At even strength, he started 68.2% of his shifts in the Golden Knights D zone. Yet, at even strength, the Sharks gave up seven goals while scoring just three with Burns on the ice. Vegas created just three fewer high-danger chances than San Jose despite starting more than two-thirds of the shifts against Burns 175 feet from the Sharks goal.
Quite simply, Burns is dangerous when he’s in the Sharks offensive zone and when the Sharks have the puck, but anywhere else on the ice, he’s a liability. The Golden Knights scored 13 5-on-5 goals in the playoff series, seven of them with Burns on the ice. Vegas scored 22 total goals in the series, 12 of them were with Burns out there. Let me remind you again, Burns started 78.5% of his shifts in the offensive zone, yet he was on the ice for 55% of the goals the Sharks allowed.
Maybe Drew Doughty was on to something.
Doughty on the Norris race:
"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”
— Ryan Leslie (@ryanleslie73) March 25, 2019
As we head into this series, you’ll probably hear plenty about Brent Burns. They’ll gush over his skating, be amazed by how he keeps the puck in at the blue line, and praise him every time he activates into the play offensively. But keep a close eye on #88 as the series goes on and you’ll surely see what I’ve illustrated here.
Brent Burns will be a weapon in this series, but it’ll be for the Golden Knights more than it will the Sharks.