To see Brent Burns on the ice at the Metro Centre, it’s easy to assume he’s been a defenceman his entire life.
The 23-year-old blue-liner has a skill-set that naturally suits him for eventual Norris Trophy candidacy, and leads Canada in ice time early in the IIHF world championship.
But it’s been less than five years since the Minnesota Wild drafted Burns as a budding power forward, and less than two years since the team converted him to a full-time blue-liner.
It’s safe to call it a wildly successful experiment.
“He’s a hybrid player — I don’t know that there is anybody like him,” said Ken Hitchcock, Canada’s head coach. “He attacks like a forward and he defends like a defenceman.”
The 6-foot-5, 219-pounder is no doubt a rare breed, with size, mobility and a rocket shot that nearly took the head off of goalie Mathieu Garon at Canada’s first practice.
Burns, an Ajax, Ont., native who has a handful of tattoos and is one tooth short of a smile, also played defence in his early teens and didn’t balk when the Wild initiated the switch.
“You just do it,” said Burns, who had 15 goals among 43 points and a plus-12 rating in 82 games this season.
“At the time, I just wanted to play. Anytime I could get on the ice, I didn’t care where I was playing. I took it with open arms.”
Burns was part of the blue-blooded 2003 entry draft that also produced Canadian teammates Eric Staal and Ryan Getzlaf, not to mention Dion Phaneuf, Nathan Horton and Mike Richards. He has quietly emerged as among the best in the bunch.
“It was definitely a learning curve and I’m still learning stuff every game,” Burns said. “I’m getting more comfortable but it’s still tough plays and a lot of days when it’s tough.”
He is paired with hard-hitting Dan Hamhuis on the Canadian blue-line and gets top power-play time with Mike Green.
Hitchcock calls him a “special player,” lauding his acute sense for knowing when to pinch and when to stay home. He also likes how Burns puts his power-forward fundamentals to use.
“When he attacks, he doesn’t attack to dump the puck in,” Hitchcock said. “He’s going with it, he’s going to the net, and nothing’s going to get in his way.”
Burns will be at the forefront today when Canada faces the United States at 4:30 p.m. at the Metro Centre.
It can only be good news for Canada that Burns says: “I don’t think I’m where I should be yet,” because he has arguably been Canada’s best defenceman early on.
“Playing with such good players, you’re trying to force it sometimes, do too much,” he said. “I’m trying to make the easy play, get some confidence and go from there.”