If you think you know Brent Burns, think again. What you see isn’t always what you get. There are two sides to San Jose’s flamboyant big man: he may look like a wild man on the surface, but behind the beard it’s all precision, purpose and planning.
When famed pirate Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach went into battle, he did so as the most intimidating man of the seas. As noted in the essential text General History of the Pyrates by Captain Johnson, Teach grew his beard out to frightful lengths and a bushy depth that saw the hairs come up to his eyes. To top things off, he would stick lit matches under his hat, so that his eyes would glow and “made him altogether such a figure, that imagination cannot form an idea of fury, from Hell, to look more frightful.” Blackbeard may have acted like a lunatic, but the man knew what he was doing to strike fear into his foes.
Brent Burns isn’t allowed to stick lit matches in his helmet, but like Blackbeard, he is one hell of an intimidating force. His beard may appear wild, but just as Teach fastened black ribbons to his facial hair, Burns is meticulous with his growth. “It takes a lot of beard oil and tender loving care to keep it tight,” he said. “Guys are always teasing me about getting food stuck in it, but I keep it clean. I’d rather eat off this beard than some dinner plates.” Over the years, this season in particular, the beard has become synonymous with the player. On the ice, Burns plays with his hair on fire. Calling it reckless wouldn’t be far off. Burns himself describes it as “off-the-wall.” As with his beard, however, what might seem crazy is actually well thought out. Although Burns may look like a wild man on the ice – all 6-foot-5, 230 pounds of him, teeth missing, scruff threatening to engulf his face – he is a marauder on a mission. There is purpose, calculation, strategy, planning behind the player, and even the man himself. Dare we say, there’s a method to his madness.
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So Burns needed something good. While purchasing a Chewbacca-emblazoned ugly Christmas sweater for a holiday party at captain Joe Pavelski’s house, Burns was lured in by Amazon and bought a full-on Chewbacca mask. And the plan worked beautifully. In a weekend full of oh-snap moments, the Chewbacca shootout goal was among the highlights of the festivities.
Coming into 2015-16, the previous two seasons hadn’t been kind to the Sharks. First, there was the collapse in the 2014 playoffs against the Los Angeles Kings, which had seen the Sharks up 3-0 in the series before falling in seven games. Then last season, San Jose failed to make the post-season altogether for the first time in more than a decade. “I don’t think either are great memories,” Burns said. “Any time you miss the playoffs, it’s such a failure and an empty feeling. The Los Angeles comeback never should have happened, but that’s hockey today.”
Former Sharks coach Todd McLellan paid for his players’ sins with his job. Enter Peter DeBoer, himself fresh off the carousel from New Jersey, where the Devils had canned him mid-season. The reset was on. GM Doug Wilson brought in Joel Ward, Paul Martin and Martin Jones to shake things up, and Pavelski assumed the captaincy.
One thing that stayed the same, however, was Burns’ position. He has made a career out of being a swingman who can play defense and right wing, and he has proven deadly at either end, both as a sure-handed power forward alongside Joe Thornton and as the fourth attacker swooping in from the blueline. Lucky for DeBoer, he got a sneak peak at the latter side of Burns when the juggernaut defenseman played for him at the World Championship in the Czech Republic last spring. DeBoer helmed an incredibly gifted Canadian squad with Sidney Crosby, Tyler Seguin and Nathan MacKinnon among the stars, and the Canucks ended up thrashing the field, humiliating Russia 6-1 in the gold-medal game. The top defenseman in the tournament? Burns, with 11 points in 10 games. That settled it for DeBoer. As the new bench boss in San Jose, he would deploy Burns on ‘D.’ And his instincts have been right. Burns has had a Norris-caliber campaign, easily surpassing his previous personal-best for goals (22), which he set as a forward in 2013-14, and points (60), which he established last season on the blueline. Burns is just the fourth defenseman in the past two decades to score more than 25 goals in a season (see sidebar). “He’s got an unbelievable package of tools,” DeBoer said. “When you’re building out a defenseman – he’s 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, he’s physical, he can skate all day long, he’s got a bomb for a shot and through his career here he has learned the intricacies of the position.” In a dressing room where DeBoer turns to leaders such as Burns to keep the team on the same page, the D-man sets a tone on and off the ice – fellow blueliner Justin Braun notes that Burns loves to shut down forwards even at practice and when the Sharks need him, the fun visage disappears. “You can see the focus,” Braun said. “He wants the game on his stick. When he gets serious, you know it’s time to get going.” Still, DeBoer knew that Burns had to be balanced out. He needed insurance to protect his big defenseman’s freedom to freelance. This season, Burns’ flights of fancy have been ably backed up by a new defense partner, the diametrically understated Paul Martin, last seen by DeBoer in the East, when he was coaching New Jersey and Martin was patrolling the back end in Pittsburgh with offensive defenseman extraordinaire Kris Letang. In Martin, Burns has a partner who reads the play extremely well and knows the game inside-out, balancing out his aggressive style. “We complement each other very well,” Martin said. “He’s a great talent, and he’s able to create so much on his own with his shot and his skating. And he’s underrated defensively in the reads that he makes and in his defensive range.” Aggressive, yet responsible. The dichotomies continue. With his ability to make plays at high speeds, Burns is essentially a bigger, meaner version of Letang – and that’s pretty good if you’re going for a Stanley Cup, which San Jose has been chasing for quite some time now. Discount the lockout shortened 2012-13, as well as 2014-15’s 89-point blip, and the Sharks have averaged more than 100 points per season since 2003-04. Now San Jose is back where it should be, vying to get out of the most murderous playoff bracket in the NHL, the Pacific Division. Because the Kings also missed the post-season last year, while Anaheim squandered a chance to dethrone the Blackhawks, neither of Sharks’ division rivals will be in giving moods once Game 82 is in the books. So it’s Serious Time for Brent Burns. He has the skills and physical attributes to dominate and a great cast in San Jose to back him up. Time to bust out the beard oil and – what the heck – light a couple matches under your lid. This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the Playoff Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.