Oh, the difference a year makes.
Prior to this season, one of the most explosive yet underrated players in the game was Washington defenseman Mike Green. Coming off an impressive 18-goal, 56-point campaign in 2007-08, Green entered May’s World Championship in Halifax/Quebec City still a relative unknown after his Caps failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs.
Not that Green came out of nowhere. He posted seven points in seven post-season games and subsequently led all defensemen in scoring at the World Championship with 12 points in nine games. Some questioned Green’s defensive limitations, so even after that tournament was done he wasn’t the talk of the town or looked to as the future of Canada’s defense corps. That discussion started with Minnesota’s Brent Burns, who was named best defenseman in the tournament by the directorate.
Burns was drafted 20th overall by the Wild in the 2003 draft as a projected power forward. He notched 40 points in 68 games on the wing for the Brampton Battalion of the Ontario League and even entered Minnesota’s camp with the idea he was to play a strong game down low.
That is until the defensively minded Jacques Lemaire grabbed control.
Lemaire took the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Burns and transformed him into an imposing defender who had the natural ability to rush with the play. Burns surprised a lot of people by making the Wild as an 18-year-old and playing 36 games with the team.
Even though he spent the following season with the American League’s Houston Aeros, the fact Burns was able to adapt to a new position at the pro level so quickly made the Wild comfortable their first-rounder would learn to become an impact player.
Burns returned full-time to the NHL the following year and hasn’t looked back, as his game improved each of the following three seasons. Last year, Burns came into his own, notching 15 goals and 43 points in 82 games and became the talk of the World Championship as his flashy style and big-body play attracted fans of both finesse and toughness.
But oh, what a fickle ride the bandwagon can be.
Green and the offensively-minded wizards from Washington jumped hard out of the gate this season and the free-flowing, fan-friendly style of the Caps – coupled with the willingness of coach Bruce Boudreau to let his Green Monster run wild – quickly left the shutdown style of the Wild and everything associated with it in the dust. With 16 points in the first 19 games, Green was already starting to turn heads away from Burns.
It was a long season for Burns, an Ajax, Ont., native, who first sustained a shoulder injury early in the season that forced him to miss a couple games and is currently sidelined with a concussion that has ended his season. But when he did play, Burns showed signs of brilliance shrouded behind the defense-first style the Wild suffocates the league with.
When he was healthy, Burns munched minutes. He averaged 22:25 of ice time per game and notched 16 points in the final 29 games of his season. The beauty about Burns is Lemaire also uses him on the wing from time to time, where he doesn’t miss a step.
Of course, it’s never a good thing when a concussion ends the season of a promising young star. The Wild was content to have him rest for the end of the campaign and prepare himself for a return to prominence next season; something the team is confident he can accomplish.
While absolutely nothing should be taken away from the simply amazing season put together by Green, Burns should not be forgotten. Green certainly benefits from the rushing game plan of the Capitals, whereas Burns is largely stuck behind Lemaire’s iron curtain, unable to break through and stand out with flair.
But make no mistake: Burns also has a finely tuned attacking acumen to go along with the sturdy size to intimidate and shut down in his own corner. When the puck drops on the 2009-10 season in October, Green will undeniably be mentioned among the top players in the game and ‘one to watch.’ But it was only 11 months ago Burns was the one expected to burst through and take a run at a spot on Canada’s 2010 Olympic team.
Don’t be surprised if a healthy Burns has returned to the prominence of being a burgeoning Canadian blueliner by the time next year’s playoffs roll around.
It’s funny how much can change in a year.
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