Column: Defensemen are key figures for Penguins and Sharks

Kris Letang, Patrick Marleau
(Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)

Maybe the NHL should establish a separate category and award to distinguish traditional, stay-back-and-defend defenseman from their more adventurous peers, the ones who jump so far up into the play that they sometimes lead it. For now, all defensemen are judged together, an impossible task.

If last year’s Stanley Cup tournament was dominated by the excellence of rugged and tireless Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks, the unanimous choice for the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs, this spring’s festivities have tilted toward the other end of the defenseman spectrum. Without the offensive exploits of shaggy-bearded Brent Burns, the San Jose Sharks would not have won the West. Without the finesse of clever Kris Letang, the Pittsburgh Penguins would not have prevailed in the East — and they would not be taking a 2-0 Stanley Cup Final lead into Game 3 Saturday at SAP Center.

Letang, a compact 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, had an assist in each of the first two games to increase his totals to two goals and 12 points in 19 playoff games. Burns, a forward-turned-defenseman who’s a hulking 6-5 and 230 pounds, had an assist in Game 1 and is third in postseason production with six goals and 22 points in 20 games. That’s a carryover from the regular season, when he had 75 points in 82 games and ranked 11th overall.

Burns, 31, is a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman, as are high-scoring Erik Karlsson of Ottawa and Drew Doughty of the Kings, who has sacrificed offense for defense. Letang, 29, merited consideration but didn’t make the top three.


Though different in appearance, Letang and Burns are similar in their importance to their teams. But Letang, asked to compare himself to Burns, found more differences than likenesses.

“He’s got a way harder shot than mine, I can tell you that,” Letang said with a smile after the teams practiced Friday at Sharks Ice. “But for a guy his size, he’s got a lot of speed. He’s got great vision. He jumps in the rush. He’s a big body. He’s tough to go around. There’s a reason why he was able to play forward and defense and back and forth. He’s got tons of assets, so we’ve got to keep an eye on him.”

Much the same can be said of Letang, who spent some time at forward as a youngster but preferred defense. “I like that you’re able to see the ice and everything is kind of in front of you,” he said.

Burns was drafted as a defenseman, chosen 20th overall in 2003 before being moved up to forward. The Sharks moved him back to defense for the 2014-15 season and he has blossomed since then.


Known as a free spirit for his man-bun, beard, and gap-toothed smile, he’s appreciated as a good teammate. “There’s two Burnsies. There’s one when the camera is on him, and there’s one when the camera’s off him,” forward Logan Couture said. “The one with the camera on him is a lot louder. You get him one-on-one, he’s quiet. He’s great to have a conversation with. In front of a camera he’s a prankster and talks a lot.”

Burns’ defense partner, Paul Martin, played alongside Letang in Pittsburgh before Martin signed with San Jose as a free agent last summer and so has extensive experience covering up when his defense partner takes chances offensively. Martin and Burns have it down to a near-science.

“He’s one of those ‘feel’ players that he just goes out and he reads and reacts to the play. And for me, that’s kind of what I do to him, basically,” Martin said. “This whole year has been a great process and I’ve learned a lot from him, and hopefully him from me.

“I think we’ve been able to find a pair that we’re comfortable with, and we can always get better. I think with me, it’s basically just realizing where he’s at on the ice and making sure I’m in a good position to fill in for him if he decides to go.”

Burns said the key for the Sharks on Saturday will be to capitalize on the ramped-up emotions of fans who have waited 25 years for the team’s first Stanley Cup Final home game.

“You get legs. You get energy. It’s great,” he said. “It’s fun to play at home. You’re comfortable. You get your bed. You get the food you’re used to. You go on the road, you’re eating out and sleeping in a weird bed. Both are fun. But I like my bed.

“It’s always great to play here, no matter if it’s an exhibition game or intrasquad game. The Shark Tank is awesome. It will be a fun game.”

Apparently in a hurry to leave, he gave a brief answer when asked what the Sharks must do in order to win. “Score more goals than them,” he said.


Obvious but true. And chances are he and Letang will figure in those goals.


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