Pucks in Deep: Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and the San Jose Sharks

by Sam Stockton | 5/20/19 2:00am

Pucks in Deep: Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and the San Jose Sharks

As the San Jose Sharks continue their controversial march through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, two players among their ranks are the easiest to pick out on the ice. First there is Erik Karlsson, a Swedish defenseman who joined the Sharks this offseason as the Ottawa Senators descended toward rock bottom. His shoulder-length hair flows freely from beneath his helmet, long enough to slightly obscure the nameplate of his jersey. While Karlsson’s lettuce might garner the most glances in warm-ups, by the time the puck drops, his play stands out even more. In his 10th NHL season, Karlsson remains one of the league’s best skaters. His careful edge work helps him breeze through the neutral zone, never seeming to strain himself but still gliding around and by his opposition. Blessed with incredible vision, Karlsson excels at creating and finding space for his running mates. 

Second is Brent Burns, who, though drafted by Minnesota, has spent the past eight seasons in the Bay Area. Burns’ defining feature is the wild man beard that completely absorbs the chin strap of his helmet — a beard so thick it made the Chewbacca mask he donned at the 2016 All-Star festivities hardly look out of place. Alongside Karlsson, he is the Sharks’ other star on the blue line. Burns — who curates a personal zoo on his Texas ranch in the offseason — brings a willingness to fire a shot at any moment, tremendous skill as a playmaker and dogged strength that makes him one of the league’s best at winning puck battles.

As their stat lines reflect (the duo is tied for second on the team with 16 points each in 19 playoff games so far), Karlsson and Burns force a reconsideration of the position we have long referred to as “defenseman.” This misnomer suggests that a blueliner’s greatest contribution to his team’s success refers to his work on the defensive end. It evokes names like Scott Stevens or Eddie Shore. The days of the hard-hitting, shot-blocking, stay-at-home defenseman may not be entirely dead (here, I owe a tip of the cap to Messieurs Ron Hainsey, Brooks Orpik and Roman Polák), but they are certainly dwindling.

A better term for the 2019 iteration of the position would be “back” or “guard,” referring to the role’s positioning off of a faceoff without implying that the player’s primary impact occurs when the opponent has the puck. For years, trusted hockey men have pointed to stats like “hits” or “shot blocks” as exemplars of a player’s skill in defending and therefore merit as a defenseman. In fact, a player who racks up these stats is likely one who spends a lot of time in his own end chasing the puck. As such, this is not the kind of player I would want controlling my blue line.

Karlsson and Burns are at the bleeding edge of the ongoing blue line revolution. Both excellent skaters, they routinely venture deep into their opponents end to create offense, unfazed by the prospect of an odd-man rush in the opposite direction because they can usually outskate their opponents on the back check if necessary.

In Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals against the St. Louis Blues, Karlsson buried the overtime winner into a gaping net off of a Gustav Nyquist feed. Setting aside an undetected hand pass from Timo Meier (does it feel better to know that the NHL said they’re sorry about that, Blues fans?), Karlsson was able to score such an easy goal, his second of the game, because of his willingness to aggressively participate in the Sharks’ offensive attack. After guiding San Jose into the offensive zone, Karlsson camped out in the slot to the left of St. Louis’ net. For not retreating to safer ground along his own blue line, the (modern) hockey gods rewarded Karlsson with an open goal. To make it even sweeter, the goal was an overtime winner.

Of course, this aggressive style of defenseman play does not come without costs. Both Karlsson and Burns have vulnerabilities in their games. For Karlsson, that vulnerability stems primarily from his health. While still a Senator, Karlsson guided Ottawa to the Eastern Conference Finals with serious tendon damage in his foot. Throughout this season, he has struggled with a nagging groin injury that appears to have severely hampered his ability to pivot, causing him to struggle on puck retrievals and in occasional one-on-one situations. Meanwhile, when Burns is off his game, he takes too many shots from low-danger areas or makes careless passes in his own end that turn into strong chances for his opposition.

The nature of the role both Karlsson and Burns play makes them highly susceptible to media criticism. Both are asked to carry the puck regularly and defend one-on-one chances against them. Inevitably, they will sometimes turn it over or get burned. However, because players like Burns and Karlsson are charged with the most difficult and important job in the sport — moving the puck from the area where it poses a risk to an area where their team can attack — these foibles do little to diminish their value. Even with the occasional blunder, these are two of the most effective and dangerous players in the sport.

If the Sharks want to give themselves the best chance to finally capture Lord Stanley, they would be well-served to unleash their pair of rovers. Both right-handed shooters, the duo does not play together on the same defense pair, and, as the stakes continue to rise, the Sharks have the luxury of being able to deploy one or the other for essentially the entire game.

Prior to yesterday’s Game 5, Karlsson averaged approximately 25 minutes and Burns 28 as the two players with the highest amount of playoff time on the ice. As the Sharks attempt to secure their second-ever berth in the Stanley Cup Final and first Cup championship, both those numbers should slide even closer to 30. Head coach Peter DeBoer ought to use his two horses on the back end to take over the remainder of the postseason.

To maximize his two unique talents, DeBoer should encourage Karlsson and Burns to venture even more freely than usual. Both are uniquely gifted at creating quality chances from the right point, an area that is not typically a dangerous one. However, to get the most out of his star “defensemen,” DeBoer must urge them to set up shop in increasingly dangerous areas of the offensive zone; take below the goal line as an example. From positions like that one, Karlsson and Burns can survey the entire ice and take full advantage of their playmaking prowess.

Karlsson and Burns have helped carry San Jose this far through their redefinition of the “defenseman” position. To finally push the Sharks over the top, they will likely have to steer even more toward their tendency to roam. They may give up a few chances the other way, but a pair like this one will surely be able to create more offense than they surrender once fully unleashed.