SAN JOSE, Calif. — Three days before Christmas, the holiday spirit flows like beard hair through these practice facility hallways. The Sharks already carry a league-wide reputation for keeping loose vibes, between their in-house table tennis league and the generally civil presence of that Civil War general lookalike named Jumbo. But everyone seems extra holly-jolly right now, gifting heavy praise for their best player’s best skill.
Defenseman Justin Braun: “It’s amazing.”
Forward Tomas Hertl: “For sure the most dangerous in the NHL.”
Goalie Aaron Dell: “I don’t think there’s anyone in the world better at it than him.”
Coach Pete DeBoer: “First off, he’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
No one shoots the puck like Brent Burns. This statement can be interpreted several ways, all of them equally true. He uncorks from distance at historic rates during the modern age of shot blocking; only Alex Ovechkin (84) has logged more five-shot games since 2015-16 than Burns (76), who more than doubles the next closest defenseman, Erik Karlsson (37). En route to winning the Norris Trophy last season, he finished one shy of joining Mike Green as the only 30-goal blueliners over the past quarter-century. Others can try to emulate Burns’s unique curl-and-drag snapshot, but no one can magically become 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds with sasquatch strength, “a linebacker on skates,” as DeBoer says.
Leaning against a wall outside his office, the coach is struggling to pick his favorite part of Burns’s shot. He begins with “dexterity,” citing the 32-year-old’s uncanny knack for firing while off-balance and whacking wobbly pucks. “I think that’s what makes him special,” DeBoer says.
Then again there’s the way Burns sashays backwards along the offensive blue line—most often right, his strong side, to left—and whips wristers on the move, somehow sizzles pucks through thickets of traffic. (“It’s a unique skill, getting the puck off under any type of duress, or time, at different angles, and getting it to the net.”) Or how Burns almost never fully winds up for slappers, yet still generates more power than most in the league. (“It’s not comparable to Shea Weber. But I would put his snapshot up against a lot of guys’ slapshots.”)
As for Burns’s sheer volume of attempts—he led the league with 320 shots in 2016-17; his 172 ranked fourth in the NHL through Wednesday and first among defenseman by 41—DeBoer reaches for a cross-sport comparison. “I liken it to a guy like Peyton Manning, who you know isn’t going to run on you, is just going to sit there and pass,” he says. “And you game plan around the fact that he’s not going to run, he’s just going to pass, and he still finds a way to pick you apart.”
“Let’s talk about something else. Write about Dell. Write about our ping-pong league.”
Brent Burns does not wish to discuss his shot, let alone gush about its qualities. To him, this feels tantamount to divulging state secrets, even though anyone in the NHL can queue up his greatest hits on YouTube or Hudl. He understands the curiosity behind these questions, and will discuss things off-the-record, but politely declines to comment while a recorder light is blinking. “Just say I practice shooting left-handed in the summer,” he deadpans. “Or that I use the handle of a ping-pong paddle.”
A half-hour earlier, Burns had preceded the Sharks’ skate by arranging two lines of five pucks in the high slot, roughly parallel to the faceoff dots. Placing his stick blade barely behind each puck, he cranked them at goalie Martin Jones, using pure wrist strength alone. Teammates will note that Burns is always drilling his shot like this (though Burns rebuts that everyone in San Jose does). “It doesn’t just come out of nowhere,” says Chicago forward Tommy Wingels, a former teammate during their Stanley Cup Final run two seasons ago. “He works for that.”
Burns traces his training back to Jari Byrski, an skills coach who runs the Sk8On hockey school outside Toronto. Using unconventional equipment such as rubber boards that generate funky bounces and a dummy defenseman with a yellow smiley face, Byrski helped Burns develop a quick release that can handle pretty much any puck tumbling his way. “Most guys, it’ll pop up or they won’t get a whole lot on it,” Dell says. “He still gets it just like it’s sitting flat on him. I’ve seen him shoot rolling ones from way back or in his feet and I’m like, ‘How the hell did you even shoot that, let alone get a good shot off?’”
Part of this is technique. Much is supreme timing. Burns actually prefers bouncing pucks to flat ones, he says, because they pose knuckling nightmares for goalies. Indeed, his shot relies on deception more than raw power. When Burns fires while moving laterally, he first pulls the puck into his body before snapping it forward, which uses the curve on his blade to create a hellish midair spin, or abruptly stopping on an edge to unleash a half-slapper. “Sometimes it’s scary because the shot is pretty hard and I get it a couple times in my ankles, my legs,” Hertl says. “It’s no fun. He laughs and he say, ‘Get out of my way!’”
Like a pitcher whose release point never wavers between fastballs and breaking pitches, Burns tries to start each drag with the same motion. “He can go pretty much anywhere with it,” Dell says. “He can pull it, shoot it, go glove side, blocker side, it looks the same either way and you have to react to it. Then he’s also got that option for that high tip. He’s really good at not just shooting when the goalie can see it. He’ll drag and wait until he gets some traffic in front.”
“That’s the biggest thing—how much movement he has from when he catches the puck to when he releases it,” Braun says. “Just real tough to be in that lane when he can do that. I haven’t seen many guys who have that range when he’s dragging to shoot it. We can do that, some of us, and it’s going to be a 30-mile-an-hour shot and no one’s afraid to block it. He rips it in there.”
The players are posed a question: You are an opposing assistant coach, tasked with assembling a scouting report on San Jose. What does the PowerPoint slide about defending Burns say?
Wingels: “I think you’ve got to know he’s not passing. He’s shooting it 100 out of 100 times there.”
Braun: “If I was playing against him, I’d just have my winger stand right next to him and not let him get the puck.”
These are cause-and-effect replies. Since everyone knows what Burns will do—since DeBoer arrived before the ‘15-16 season, he’s averaged 4.1 shots per game—an increasing amount of attention gets paid to his presence at the point. "Guys are playing him a lot higher, so he has to be quicker getting the puck off, which gives him less time to pick where he’s going to go," Braun says. "That’s the biggest change—guys know who he is, what he brings, so he has to adjust to that."
Likewise burdened by an uncharacteristically low shooting percentage, Burns is scoring about half as often as '16-17, slimming the odds that he'll hit 20 goals for a third straight season. Then again, all seven of his goals have come since Nov. 22, a 21-game stretch in which Burns has 23 points. He was also named to a fourth consecutive NHL All-Star Game on Wednesday.
“The fact that he gets game-planned around and he hasn’t lost patience with that,” DeBoer says, “and he’s still finding a way to do what he does best, at the same rate, or similar rates as he’s had in the past when no one was paying attention to him … that’s incredible. He’s got high expectations for himself. But great players like that always do.
"Puck luck’s going to take over. Every shot he takes has got some zip on it. It has a chance to go in. It’s not an easy save no matter what. Those eventually are going to find some holes.”
At this moment, Burns appears in the hallway. By now DeBoer has been briefed about his superstar’s reticence. Seeing us chatting, Burns logs one last formal protest as he wanders past.
“You’re not getting more are you?” Burns asks.
“You’re not giving him anything,” DeBoer replies.
“No, it’s a secret! It’s like a quarterback. These guys like to throw. Okay, where do you think they’re going next game? I said write about our ping-pong league.”
Hang on. A quarterback? Who was it that his coach compared Burns to again?
“Peyton Manning,” says DeBoer. “Doesn’t matter what you take away, he’s going to find something else.”
“I just don’t want to give any ideas,” Burns says, by now, already halfway down the hallway. He points to his head. “I get into the hamster house here, it could be game over!”
“You’re good,” DeBoer hollers. “You’re unstoppable. Don’t worry about it.”