Late-career transformation proves Burns still exceptional player

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Brent Burns isn’t who he was, but he’s still an exceptional player.

This is how exceptional: From 2016-19, Burns enjoyed a 65.73 offensive zone start percentage, second only to Torey Krug for defensemen that totaled over 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick.

What that means is when then-Sharks coach Peter DeBoer had an offensive zone faceoff, a situation more conducive to scoring a goal, he chose offense for Burns, on average, about 66 out of 100 times. Burns repaid DeBoer in kind, scoring 31 5-on-5 goals, second to only Dougie Hamilton among NHL blueliners in that period of time.

These aren’t DeBoer’s Sharks though. Since 2018-19, Erik Karlsson’s inconsistent play, Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s decline, and a mostly mediocre group of young defensemen coming up the ranks have forced the 37-year-old into a late-career transformation.

In the last two years, Burns has just a 43.11 OZ start percentage, second only to Vlasic’s 40.35 among Sharks rearguards. That’s in the top-quarter of NHL rearguards in terms of being defensive-leaning.

The difference between Burns and Vlasic here? Burns has played 800-plus more minutes at 5-on-5 than Vlasic from 2020-22. Consequently, Burns has had 393 defensive zone (DZ) starts, sixth-most among all defensemen. Vlasic is 76th of 191 qualified blueliners (1000-plus minutes) with 275.

Another familiar name on this list to Sharks fans? Justin Braun is 16th in DZ Starts (348) and 25th in OZ start percentage (39.62).

In effect, the Sharks have tried to turn Burns from offensive specialist Torey Krug to shutdown defender Justin Braun over the last three years.

This is, like I said, exceptional: Since OZ start percentage was recorded in 2007-08, in my research, there isn’t a veteran defenseman who’s made a late-career transformation quite like Burns has.

Despite this, the 37-year-old Burns is still keeping the candle going. He was tied for 11th among NHL defensemen with 27 5-on-5 points this year. He led the league with 2,143 minutes played, a career high and almost 100 minutes more than any other player.

So Burns is playing more minutes, and harder minutes than ever, and still producing. He really doesn’t get enough credit for that.

I’m not sure if he’s a great player anymore, but he’s still a very good one, being forced into a perhaps ill-fitting role.

Scout’s Notebook

And that’s why Burns, even at 37, and with three years and $8 million each season left on his contract, still has trade value.

“He’s definitely still a top-four defenseman for a top team,” an NHL scout told San Jose Hockey Now. “I think you’d still get something for him. At full price. Just not much in return.

“Maybe a mid-round pick [if you retain]? Comparable to the Duncan Keith trade.”

The Chicago Blackhawks traded 38-year-old Keith last summer to the Edmonton Oilers for Caleb Jones and a conditional pick (a 2022 third-rounder that could have upgraded to a second-rounder).

RELATED: Breaking down the Sharks' possible top GM candidates

This scout considers Burns easily a superior player right now to Keith last summer, but Keith was cheaper ($5.53 million AAV) and had less term (two years left) on his contract.

SPORTLOGiQ Stat

Burns continues to be an underrated force defensively: He led all Sharks defensemen with 4.81 blocked passes and 2.01 stick checks per 20 at 5-on-5 this past season.

Key Quote

“You’d love to keep [Burns] around 24-25 minutes -- which is still extremely high. You add on five more minutes, it’s a major difference in anybody’s game. Where he’s at his best, yeah, somewhere around that 24-25 minutes.” (Bob Boughner)

Burns averaged 26:09 a game this past year – if the Sharks can lessen his load next year, that’s probably a good sign, a sign of better blueline depth.

Key Story

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