In the post-expansion era, only one defenseman not named Bobby Orr has ever won the Hart Trophy. That was in 1999-00, more than 15 years ago, when a 25-year-old Chris Pronger was an absolute workhorse for the St. Louis Blues, averaging more than 30 minutes per game while scoring 14 goals and 62 points to secure both the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman and the Hart as league MVP.
Those were different times, of course. Pronger’s 30-minute ice time average would be unheard of today, and voters no doubt looked at his plus-minus, a league-leading plus-52, in awarding him the trophy. In the years since, however, the plus-minus statistic has had its value lessened — and sometimes called into question — as we’ve entered the era of advanced statistics. But that doesn’t make Pronger’s season any less brilliant. He was exceptional at a time where being the league’s standout defenseman meant outshining the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Rob Blake and Scott Stevens.
Pronger could have some company alongside Orr once this season closes, though, because with less than 30 games remaining in the regular season, Brent Burns is well on his way to snatching up the first Norris Trophy of his career and it’s not at all far fetched to believe he could take home the Hart, as well.
When it comes to the Norris, there’s not really much of a conversation to be had. While some bemoan the fact the league’s award for best defenseman is almost annually handed out to the top scoring rearguard, it’s hard to fathom any voters will be able to overlook any perceived lapses in Burns’ defensive zone game when his offense has been so incredible. Through 55 games, he has 22 goals and 57 points. No defenseman is within a dozen points of Burns and he has a 10-goal edge on the next-best goal-scoring rearguard, Shea Weber.
To put Burns’ scoring into perspective, the best season by a defenseman in a Norris-winning campaign post-lockout is 80 points. That came in 2005-06, when Lidstrom nabbed the first of three consecutive awards and fourth in what was a run of six Norris victories in seven seasons. With 27 games remaining in the Sharks’ season, Burns is on pace for 85 points. But the goal totals aren’t even close. Matter of fact, with Burns on pace to score 33 goals, he would become one of eight defenseman to light the lamp that often in a Norris campaign. The others are Bobby Orr (four times), Paul Coffey (twice) and Doug Wilson.
It’s in Burns’ outlandish statistics that the argument can be made for the Hart win, too. His 22 goals, the most among defensemen, put him 14th among all skaters in the league. His 57 points are as much as Nicklas Backstrom and Brad Marchand, and less than only Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby. Burns has the fifth-most assists in the league, four game-winning goals, two overtime winners and the sixth-best points per game rate.
What separates Burns, however, is that because of his position, he has a chance to make a greater impact on the game than his forward counterparts who will also be in the running. No one will deny that McDavid and Crosby have that uncanny game-breaking ability that’s rarely seen in today’s game, but Crosby skates 19:27 per outing. McDavid has a slight edge, averaging 21:16 per game. Both have their average ice time dwarfed by Burns’ 24:54, and he does it in all situations.
Combined, Crosby (8 seconds) and McDavid (46 seconds) average nearly a minute less ice time per game than Burns on the penalty kill, and while both nearly make up that time on the power play, it’s actually Burns who leads all three with 3:43 per game with the extra man. At even strength, it’s no contest. Burns leads the way with 19:19 per game, which is a hair shy of two minutes more than McDavid skates at evens each night. Burns also leads the trio in blocked shots per game — that has much to do with playing defense, and the merit of blocking shots can be argued — and he’s putting more pucks on net each game than either Crosby or McDavid. So, if you’re looking for an MVP that’s contributing in every facet of the game, it’s hard to argue against Burns.
Even an advanced stats argument shows Burns’ value as MVP level, right there with McDavid and Crosby. In terms of pure Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5, Burns’ 52.98 percent mark is the lowest of the three, but his percentage relative to the rest to his team falls between that of McDavid and Crosby. Burns’ goals for percentage at 5-on-5 certainly stands out, though. At 62.35 percent, he’s narrowly ahead of Crosby and McDavid, but on a team-relative basis, Burns has almost a five percent edge on Crosby and McDavid. Burns has had a greater impact on the 5-on-5 scoring ability of the Sharks than either Crosby or McDavid have had on the Penguins or Oilers, respectively.
Everything about Burns’ season makes him as close to a lock for the Norris as there is. Realistically, he could miss the final dozen games of the season and still earn the award. If he remains healthy, it would be safe to say his triumph stands to be as lopsided as some of the most convincing Norris wins of all-time. In 1999-00, for instance, Pronger won with 53 of the 58 first-place votes and 97.4 percent of the vote. Ray Bourque is the lone rearguard in the post-expansion era to be named the winner on every single ballot, going 63-for-63 in 1989-90. It wouldn’t be a shock if Burns did the same.
However, that still brings the Hart into question, and the MVP vote could be closer than ever. Following Bourque’s unrivalled Norris victory, he finished second for the Hart because Mark Messier landed eight extra third-place votes. And in 1999-00, when Pronger won the Hart, he only narrowly defeated Jaromir Jagr, winning by a single vote despite the fact he was a near-landslide Norris recipient. That’s proof positive of how tough it is for a rearguard to capture the league’s MVP award.
But if Burns is measured on everything he’s done for the Sharks this season — at all strengths, in all situations, at both ends of the ice — it’s hard to overlook his shot at taking home the Hart.
(All advanced statistics via Puckalytics)