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Offseason acquisition Brent Burns raises the expectations in San Jose

Oct 17, 2011, 2:24 AM EDT

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Brent Burns, Mikkel Boedker AP

Expectations are pretty high in San Jose these days. Back-to-back trips to the Western Conference Finals will do that for a team. Then in the offseason, they went out and acquired the best defenseman they could get their hands on when they traded for former Minnesota Wild all-star Brent Burns. It didn’t take long for people to start asking Burns if he was feeling comfortable with his new team.

“Is this a chemistry question?” Burns said with a laugh before his second game. “Do I feel like a Shark? I have all the gear. I hope so. Yeah, it’s going to take a while, but it’s been great.”

Good thing it’s been a good start with his new teammates, because he signed a 5-year contract with San Jose before playing a single game. It was a big life decision for a guy who was only a year away from unrestricted free agency.

“It was pretty easy,” Burns said about the decision to sign an extension. “Me and my family didn’t know much about the city or the organization for that matter. I knew that it was tough to play against them and they had a great team. But right after we got traded, it can be a pretty devastating thing for somebody. The organization was just awesome. It almost takes me back to when I was 18 and pumped up to get one-piece sticks for the first time! The organization does everything they can to make sure you are ready to win—that’s all you have to care about. So it was a pretty easy decision once we started to see all the little things the team did. It was a no-brainer.”

Now that he’s in San Jose for the next six seasons, Burns should start getting used to the expectations. They’re the only team in the league that has been to the conference finals in each of the last two seasons. Before that, they were the #1 seed in the Western Conference before bowing out to the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs. The team has plenty of talent all over their roster—but until they take the next step in the playoffs, there will always be doubters (whether its warranted or not).

With Burns, the organization adds even more talent to a team that sent more players to the Olympics than most countries.

“Another puck-moving, active defenseman in the rush,” Sharks’ head coach Todd McLellan said. “[He has a] Great shot. Huge man, he’s our biggest defenseman and can play physical. In and around the blue paint, we feel that we’re stronger in that area.”

He’s not the only player who can play in the tough areas of the ice. Douglas Murray knows his way around the crease as well—and he’s excited about Burns joining the team.

“He’s an elite player,” Murray said. “He brings that extra dimension offensively and he has a big body too. He’s physical. Danny Boyle has done the heavy lifting as far as offense, so it’s great to have another high-end, top defenseman as well.”

Expectations are sky-high for the Sharks each season. Another trip to the conference finals may be a great season for most teams around the league—but it’s only the first step for San Jose. Not only do they want to make it back for the third straight season, but they want to break through this season. Everyone around the team has hopes that this could be the year it finally happens.

“I think he’s a big piece to the team,” Sharks play-by-play announcer Randy Hahn said about Burns. “If you look at the teams that win the Stanley Cup: last year, Zdeno Chara—a big defenseman. You go down the line of teams that win the Cup and almost every team that wins the Cup has that big-time, big man on the back end. Taking nothing away from Dan Boyle, he’s a tremendously gifted player with and without the puck, but he doesn’t bring the size.”

Pacific Division foes know that Burns is going to fill a big void for one of their rivals. Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle says Burns brings something the Sharks were missing last season.

“I thought that they had missed Rob Blake type of player and they look to have that element back on their backend,” Carlyle said. “That’s what Brent Burns brings. He’s a big man that can move, he jumps in the rush, big shot, plays big minutes, so I think that’s their mandate [for bringing him in.]”

Sharks head coach Todd McLellan expounded on Carlyle’s take:

“Maybe more with all due respect to Blake, because he has younger legs and can go a little bit more,” McLellan said. “But the same shot, the same tenacity, not quite the same maturity level obviously, but he does replace some of those assets lost when Blake retired.”

Carlyle and McLellan aren’t the only ones who think Burns can bring the “Rob Blake” presence either. Sharks play-by-play announcer Randy Hahn admitted that he thinks the team actually found an upgrade when asked about Burns replacing Blake’s productivity:

“With them not having to play together as a pair,” Hahn continued, “it gives the Sharks two sets of D [pairings] now that can truly dominate on the ice. That’s an element that even when Rob Blake was here, we didn’t quite have. No disrespect to Rob, but he was at the end of his career. We’ve never had this element that Brent Burns gives us with Boyle on one pair and him on a second pair. It makes us WAY tougher to match-up against.”

Take note: people around the Sharks think they’ll be “way tougher” to match up against than last season. This is a team that finished with the second best record in the Western Conference, won the Pacific Division crown for the fourth consecutive season, and eliminated both the upstart Los Angeles Kings and perennial power Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs.

We’ll know how much better they are when April and May roll around. But if they are, the Eastern Conference better start preparing themselves.

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