Let’s get this out of the way early: Barring injury the San Jose Sharks’ Brent Burns has the Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s top defenseman, locked up.
Through 50 games, Burns leads all NHL blueliners with 21 goals and 51 points — 12 more points than the next highest-scoring defenseman and fourth-most overall among skaters — while averaging almost 25 minutes of ice-time per night, which includes almost two minutes per game on the penalty kill. He is also the first defenseman since Paul Coffey (1985-86) to score 21 or more goals through his team’s first 49 games of the season.
Beyond merely being the league’s best defenseman, Burns is also making a case for the Hart Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL’s most valuable player.
It won’t be easy. Forwards have dominated the award with minimal exceptions. Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price won it in 2015, and the last defenseman to win it was Chris Pronger in 2000. Before that, it was Bobby Orr in 1972. Nicklas Lidstrom, a seven-time Norris winner and four-time champion widely considered to be one of the best defensemen ever, never finished higher than fourth on MVP ballots.
But Burns has a very strong case.
Since Peter DeBoer took over behind the bench for San Jose in 2015-16, Burns has taken advantage of more offensive freedom to join the rush from the defensive end. He leads the NHL in shots (194 in 2016-17) and if he can hold off the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin (188 shots), who has led the league in shots 10 out of the past 11 seasons, he would become the first defenseman since Ray Bourque (1986-87) to lead the NHL in shots on goal over a full season.
And those shots generate a ton of scoring chances. Typically Burns will set up on the right side of the ice, firing the puck from between the top of the face-off circles and the blueline. As evidenced by his goal scoring, many of those shots make it past the goaltender, but they also create rebound and second-chance opportunities near the goal mouth. With Burns on the ice the Sharks generate 10.2 scoring chances per 60 minutes at even strength; without him those same linemates produce 7.1 per 60. That differential of 3.1 is the best in the league for a defenseman. The Los Angeles Kings’ Drew Doughty is a distant second with a difference of 1.27.
And as you can see by the heat maps below, those scoring chances with Burns are of high quality.
After adjusting for score effects and how often Burns is deployed in the offensive zone, the Sharks have outscored opponents 47 to 32 at even strength with Burns on the ice, putting almost 60 percent of all even-strength goals scored in their favor, a rate that compares favorably to two other Hart hopefuls, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins (60 percent) and Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers (63 percent).
The value of Burns becomes more evident when you consider the Sharks get outscored 47 to 49 at even strength with him on the bench. The Oilers take a similar hit without McDavid (54 to 61) but the Penguins, in a testament to their depth, are outscoring opponents 69 to 52 without Crosby.
Perhaps your definition of “most valuable” differs, but the fact a defenseman impacts scoring as much as the two best forwards in the game is certainly something worth celebrating. Add in that Burns also plays more minutes on the penalty kill (94 minutes) than both Crosby (six minutes and 37 seconds) and McDavid (41 minutes and 50 seconds) combined while reducing the number of shot attempts against by 19 per 60 minutes of ice time, tied for the most in the NHL among defensemen, and it is too strong of a case to ignore.