Dany Heatley, Martin Havlat, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter may have greater name recognition among hockey fans, but Brent Burns could be the most significant player to change teams in the Western Conference this season.
The towering defenceman, who was acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Minnesota Wild at the NHL entry draft in June, is being viewed as the missing piece for the San Jose Sharks, even if the organization refuses to heap that kind of pressure on him. The Sharks have advanced to the last two conference finals, and are perennial Stanley Cup contenders, but what became clear last season in a five-game loss to the Vancouver Canucks in the Western final was that the team needed another heavy-minutes defenceman to go with its collection of superb forwards.
True to form, general manager Doug Wilson engineered another bold off-season, acquiring Burns and a second-round draft pick in 2012 for winger Devon Setoguchi, top prospect Charlie Coyle and a 2011 first-round draft choice.
It was a steep price to pay, but Wilson argues that 26-year-old defencemen with Burns's skill set don't often become available, and he is just what the doctor ordered for the Sharks woes.
San Jose finished 24th in penalty killing last season, third worst among playoff teams, and thwarted just 76 per cent of opposing power plays in the postseason. Against Vancouver, the series turned in Game 4 when the Canucks scored three man-advantage goals in the second period, taking a 3-0 lead in the game, and an eventual 3-1 lead in the series.
Burns averaged more than 25 minutes of ice time a game last season, and played in all situations while posting career-bests in goals (17) and points (46 ). Wilson hopes that his size (6 foot 5, 219 pounds), reach and athletic ability help cover space and improve San Jose's penalty killing.
But there are other benefits as well, as Sharks defenceman Dan Boyle noted Sunday after a 4-3 preseason victory over the Canucks here. Boyle said that the addition of Burns allows the Sharks to ice three defence pairs with offensive and defensive guys on each. Boyle, Burns and Jason Demers, who missed the series against Vancouver with injury, would qualify as the offensive threats, while Douglas Murray, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and newcomer Jim Vandermeer can take care of business on the defensive end, without having to worry about offensive contributions. Burns and Vlasic have been partnered together in camp.
"We've got an offensive D-man on each pairing, and a stay-at-home guy, so it makes other teams aware that they can't just shutdown our defencemen," Boyle said. "These days, it's very important for offensive D-men to jump into the rush."
Burns will alleviate some of the ice-time burden on Boyle, Murray and Vlasic, all of whom were leaned on heavily in the postseason, when the third pair had its minutes reduced. That becomes even more important given that the Sharks want to play an up-tempo style, evident by their trade of the heavy-footed Heatley to the Wild for the fleet-footed Havlat.
"With the way our defence is set up, that's a piece that is very important to us," Wilson said of Burns.
For his part, Burns said he does not feel any pressure to be the missing piece in San Jose, despite signing a five-year, $28.8-million (U.S.) contract extension which takes effect next year. The Barrie, Ont. native said he is still learning his teammates and the Sharks system after spending his entire seven-year career in Minnesota.
Head coach Todd McLellan, who tutored Burns when he first turned professional and played for the Wild's minor-league affiliate in Houston, said the newcomer has to get to the "react stage" as opposed to the "think stage."
"We use a number of different looks on the power play, and use different terminology on the PK [penalty kill]," he said. "It's going to take time."