One day last week, before the start of their playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings, the San Jose Sharks’ twin towers, Joe Thornton and Brent Burns, were bantering back and forth in the dressing room and for just a moment, it looked like a scene straight out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Thornton has long been seen as a Spicoli, laid-back, surfer-dude type and Burns is something of that too – his body covered in tattoos, his primary claim to fame, apart from professional hockey, the snakes, reptiles and other exotic animals that he’s collected for years.
Burns is fielding a hockey-specific question – about his switch to forward from defence – when Thornton arrived, dripping from sweat after practice. We had been talking about how long this switch might last and Burns’s answer was designed to draw Thornton into the conversation: “I think it’s good that you can do both. I enjoy playing both. Maybe I’ll play wing as long as the big [expletive] here plays. That’s my meat there.”
Thornton smiled and without pausing, immediately began a new and completely different conversation: “We just abused our backup goaltender out there,” he said with what can genuinely be described as a cackle, and off they went, laughing and exchanging barbs.
Nearby, defenceman Scott Hannan, whose locker stall is beside both players, was watching with amusement.
“Brent’s like a free spirit,” Hannan said, “but he creates a lot out there. Obviously, big bodies are hard to handle, especially with his hands and the quick release he has. He seems to have some chemistry with Joe and Gally [T.J. Galiardi]. You can see it in the room and you can see it on the ice. It’s fun to watch him play.”
It is not much of a stretch to say that the Sharks’ year was – if not saved, then certainly turned around – by a decision coach Todd McLellan made around mid-season, when he switched Burns to forward. Burns had missed the early part of the year recovering from a sports-hernia operation and when he came back, a couple of youngsters on defence, Matt Irwin and Justin Braun, were playing well enough for McLellan to get creative. The Sharks had been having trouble scoring and McLellan, who had coached Burns in the minors for AHL Houston when both were in the Minnesota Wild organization, had a proposal for him – move back up front, where he could play the game as a quintessential NHL power forward.
“There was a risk factor in doing that,” McLellan said, “because Brent was an all-star defenceman in the National Hockey League for a number of years. But our past relationship – my experience with him in Houston in the lockout prior to this one – allowed for a little bit of experience between the two of us at the position, so I felt good about him having the ability to do it.
“The risk was whether he’d accept that. He’s a team guy. He’s accepted it – and it’s worked out well for us.”
In some ways, the Sharks’ current plight closely resembles that mid-season swoon, when they were in the depths of a 6-11-6 wheeze. They are down 2-0 to the Los Angeles Kings in their Western Conference semi-final playoff series, after a difficult-to-swallow 4-3 loss Thursday night at the Staples Centre, in which they gave up a pair of power-play goals in the second-last minute of play to turn imminent victory into unexpected defeat.
The Sharks were especially vexed at a delay-of-game penalty called against defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic because it looked as though Vlasic’s clearing attempt might have deflected off the Kings’ Jeff Carter on the way over the glass. Vlasic’s penalty put them two men down and the Kings converted on both the five-on-three and the five-on-four advantages to turn a one-goal disadvantage into a one-goal lead with 81 seconds left on the clock.
But McLellan suggested that this year’s version of the Sharks may be more resilient than previous editions.
“Maybe in the past, this would have bothered our team a little more, but the guys we have, I think we can recover from this,” McLellan said. “I think we can get out and play hard again.
“Guys played their hearts out, but as I said after Game 1, that doesn’t get you wins in the playoffs. Scoring more than the other team does – and we’re going to have to do that.”
As for Burns, not many players can move as seamlessly back and forth between positions. Sometimes, a No. 7 defenceman might fill in as a fourth-line winger, but this is a different strategy, a deliberate tactic to balance the attack and create three lines that pose a threat.
“People talk about hockey sense, and that you either have it or you don’t,” McLellan said. “I think you can teach it, you can learn it. You watch some of the better players in the league, at times we coach too many systems. Brent Burns is a prime example. Brent Burns isn’t always following our system, I can tell you that. It’s frustrating at times, but he’s a pretty good offensive player because he’s reacting and reading and jumping here and making things happen – but it’s not always how we drew it up on the board. We have to give him that freedom – knowing he’s not always going to be in the right spot.”
Thornton, for one, is enjoying the partnership.
“We have so much fun together,” Thornton said. “We’re talking the whole time on the bench during games – and even practices and optional skates. We’re always laughing and enjoying each other’s company. But he’s a big force. I’ve been playing with him a couple of months now and still I sometimes don’t know what he’s going to do. He’s wild out there. It makes it fun – and real enjoyable to play with.”
The good news, for the Sharks, is that have lost just twice in regulation in 26 outings, regular-season and playoffs, at the HP Pavilion this season, a trend that will need to continue in Game 3. In the Sharks’ opener against the Kings, Burns was their most dangerous forward – and had three clear-cut chances in the third period, as San Jose pushed hard for the tie. In all, they managed a 16-4 edge in shots, but were foiled at every turn by Kings’ goaltender Jonathan Quick.
They did get three goals past Quick in Game 2, which only happened to the Kings once in the six-game, first-round series victory over the St. Louis Blues.
“In all of the games after that, it’s been goose eggs, or one, or two,” McLellan said. “When you get three, you better beat this team.”