When Justin Williams returned to the Carolina Hurricanes at the start of 2017 free agency (related: how in the world has it been five years since Mr. Game 7 came back to Raleigh?!), I joked with him that more than any other member of the media, I might appreciate Williams’ signing. You see, Williams is exactly one month older than me, and as such I was no longer older than every member of the team.
At the time, Williams was 35-years old, and that was enough for me and him to break out the AARP jokes. So if that was old, then what in the world is 37-year-old Brent Burns considered?
And more to the point, how big of a risk are the Hurricanes taking in bringing on board one of the ten oldest active players in the NHL in a key role, serving as the solution to perhaps the most important question the Hurricanes had to answer this season?
It’s a risk, to be sure, but it’s also one that I believe is worth taking. Age may be catching up to Burns, but he will also find himself playing in a role with the Hurricanes that he’s rarely found himself in over the past decade or so.
The most obvious comparison to make is simply to look at Burns next to the player whose spot in the lineup he will most likely fill, Tony DeAngelo. And on the surface, it isn’t too flattering:
Ooof. Burns has never been a defensive impresario — that -15.8 game score value in 2019-20 sticks out like a sore thumb — but nor has DeAngelo. And there’s no questioning that TDA had a career year offensively, but excluding the 2020-21 season that was over before it began for DeAngelo, he’s been contributing at a higher level of offense than Burns ever since Rod Brind’Amour was in his first year as a head coach.
But wait a second. At no time during the past four seasons was DeAngelo his team’s top defenseman. Last season, he was paired with Jaccob Slavin, who can make just about anyone look good. Burns, meanwhile, averaged more than 26 minutes per game this past season, two and a half minutes more than any defenseman the Hurricanes employed in 2021-22.
That’s true number-one defenseman territory; in fact, not only was his average of 26:09 third in the league, behind Seth Jones (at 26:13) and Thomas Chabot (26:12), but his raw ice time total of 2,144 minutes was a more than a full game — 88 minutes, appropriately — higher than second-place Victor Hedman.
And Burns did that while spending the majority of the season, as he largely was in 2020-21, with Mario Ferraro, who is, to be charitable, not Jaccob Slavin.
Let’s go back a little further, to the time when Burns was regularly contending for Norris Trophies, and winning one in 2016-17. Prior to his two years with Ferraro, Burns was paired with Brenden Dillon (GSVA: 0.0) in 2019-20, and the motley crew of Radim Simek and old friend Joakim Ryan in 2018-19. I can’t look up Ryan’s GSVA because he was not in the NHL this past season, so I’ll use Hockey Reference’s point shares as a stand-in. Simek’s point share that season was 1.9, and Ryan’s was 0.9. Burns’, meanwhile, was 12.0.
And in his high-water mark season, the 2016-17 masterpiece where Burns registered a point share of 15.35, he was paired with Paul Martin most of the time. Martin’s point share that season was 5.8 - not bad, but nowhere near the same galaxy as Burns.
In fact, that season was so incredible that it was the sixth-highest point share of any player since the 2004-05 lockout, and the highest by a defenseman since that time. The only players ahead of him? Alex Ovechkin (twice), Evgeni Malkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Jaromir Jagr. That’s some pretty heady company. Even Cale Makar, who made heads turn constantly this past season, only (!) hit 15.22. Burns was just that good.
Now, of course, time being what it is, the likelihood of Burns hitting those heights, next to Slavin or anyone else, at age 37 is microscopically low. But the larger point here is that Burns has spent the better part of eight seasons, since the Sharks switched him back from winger to defense prior to the 2014 season, needing to carry his defensive partner. At his age, asking him to do that is bound to result in decreased production.
And yet, Slavin’s career-high point share is 8.9, registered this past season. Burns has surpassed that number in six of his 18 years in the NHL, including five years in a row from 2014-2019. Even last year, a season where the conventional wisdom says that he was well on the downslope of his career, Burns registered an 8.5 point share, just 0.4 less than Slavin.
No one’s expecting Burns to win the Norris Trophy this season. But for the Hurricanes to be successful, he won’t need to play to that level. For the first time in the past decade, Burns’ role with the Hurricanes this season will not require him to be everything to everyone. That change in approach is absolutely a risk worth taking.
As mentioned before, Slavin can make anyone look good. And the only other time he’s played with a partner of Burns’ quality, he and Dougie Hamilton led the Hurricanes to four playoff series wins in three seasons, if you count the “opening round” series win over the Rangers in the 2020 bubble.
It could be that the obituaries being written about Burns’ drop in productivity were a bit hasty. On the contrary, adding Burns could provide the Hurricanes with one of the best sets of top-four defensemen in the game. What was a weak link could easily become a strength if this new phase of Burns’ career works out the way Don Waddell and company certainly believe it could.