SAN JOSE Its been a season-long adjustment period for the guy that was supposed to put the Sharks over the hump.
Brent Burns was acquired from the Minnesota Wild last summer at a hefty cost, when the Sharks sent forward Devin Setoguchi, top prospect Charlie Coyle and a first round pick to the Wild in exchange for Burns and a second rounder, and then promptly signed him to a five-year contract extension worth more than 5.7 million a year. The prevailing thought was that Burns was going to help end a 20-year drought for a club still looking for its first trip to the Stanley Cup Final, after falling just short in consecutive seasons.
That weight and expectation may have burdened Burns at the start of the year, according to the head coach.
I thought initially, he came in and was too focused on getting it all done at once, Todd McLellan said. When hes relaxed and settled, he is very, very good.
Burns is a man of few words when there are cameras and microphones in front of him.
We let you guys do the talking, and we just play, he said. Theres going to be ups-and-downs throughout the year. There always has been and there always will be, individually and as a team. Thats the way it always goes.
Statistically, an "up-and-down" season is exactly right regarding Burns. Through his first 37 games, Burns had six goals and six assists for 12 points. In his final 44 (he missed one game in January due to injury), Burns produced 25 points (five goals, 20 assists).
That includes the 10 games immediately following the All-Star break, when Burns had two goals and nine assists for 11 points. But things got away from him and the team once more, as the Sharks struggled through late February and March. Burns slowed offensive production and mistakes defensively werent helping.
Later in the year when he struggled a little bit, I know he felt like this is on me, Im the new guy, and its not going well. We talked about it a bit, and after that he relaxed a bit and played, McLellan said.
The most noticeable year-over-year stat when it comes to Burns is his drop off in penalty minutes. He finished with 98 in his final season with the Wild last year, but that dropped to just 34 this season. In fact, Burns didnt have a single penalty minute until Dec. 3, in the 23rd game of the season.
McLellan puts a premium on playing disciplined hockey, as his club was shorthanded fewer than any other team in the league. Burns rejects the theory that he was less physical this season than in the past, even though it seemed like that aspect of his game was less prevalent in his first year with San Jose.
I didnt change anything. Im not, not hitting guys anymore because I dont want to get a penalty, he said.
McLellan doesnt equate Burns drop in penalty minutes to a lack of physical play, either.
I dont think hes less physical at all. Hes checking, hes putting himself in good positions where he doesnt have to reach and lunge or anything like that. Hes defending well, McLellan said. Hes very mobile and very agile, so if hes half-beat hes not completely beat. He has the ability to recover and not take those reaching or holding penalties.
Its Burns first trip to the playoffs since 2008 when he was still with Minnesota. Hes never advanced past the first round.
And, hey, theres still a chance that Burns could help the Sharks reach to the finals. The seventh-seeded Sharks are in a lower starting position than they are accustomed to when compared with recent years, but it was just two seasons ago that a team in that same position made it to the finals when the Philadelphia Flyers lost to Antti Niemis Chicago Blackhawks.
Its a great time to play, and its exciting to be back, Burns said.