Brent Burns’ transition to Hurricanes eased by a great pairing with Jaccob Slavin


With both a Florida player and a Carolina player in the penalty box, Brent Burns collected the puck at the right point, glided at an angle toward the boards and flicked a wrist shot toward the net.

It found its way through traffic and went in, the first goal for the Hurricanes’ new defenseman, just 6:12 into his preseason debut.

In the third period, with the game tied 3-3, he skated below the goal line and threw a bad-angle shot at Panthers goalie Spencer Knight. The puck rattled in, giving Burns his second goal of the night and what wound up being the game-winner. Burns earned first-star honors in his first game with the home team, and he was serenaded with roars of approval from the PNC Arena crowd.

It seemed almost too easy, and it exhibited why the Hurricanes acquired the shoot-first, ask-questions-later defenseman during the offseason.

Of course, coming to a new team and city after 11 seasons in San Jose is anything but simple.

“I think it’s a huge transition, especially being with a team for that long,” said Tim Gleason, the former NHL defenseman and Hurricanes assistant coach who is charged with running the team’s defense. “You’re almost set in your ways, right? So coming over here is definitely a big transition, let alone just moving your whole family and all — there’s a lot to go along with it.”

Burns arrived in Raleigh soon after the July 13 trade, which sent Steven Lorentz, goalie prospect Eetu Makiniemi and a third-round pick to San Jose and also brought forward Lane Pederson to Carolina. Burns started working out at team facilities and getting to know the staff, specifically coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“Just a special player and person,” Brind’Amour said of Burns. “We just love having him around. And I was fortunate. He came early and I kind of spent a lot of time with him in the offseason because his kids had to get to school. And then (we’re) real fortunate his son plays with my son, the same hockey team. So we’ve constantly been spending a lot of time together.”

And for Burns, the transition to life on the East Coast has been easy.

“We really love being a part of this organization and city,” he said. “I mean, it’s been great.”

The adjustment on the ice thus far has also been good. Through 19 games this season, Burns has three goals and 10 assists and is on pace for 56 points — which would be his most since 2014-15. That’s despite the fact that Carolina’s power play has struggled, converting just 14.3 percent of its chances heading into Wednesday’s game against the Coyotes.

But there’s a lot behind the scenes that goes into coming to a new team with new teammates and a different system.

“I think the most impressive thing is he’s 37 and he’s like a 20-year-old — he wants to learn,” Brind’Amour said. “He knows he’s in the new system, he knows this. And he’s like, ‘Just give it to me. How do I learn to catch up?’

“You could just sit there and go, ‘Tell me what to do,’ because he’s been around and played at the high level. That’s not his attitude at all.”

Gleason said, “He’s actually one of the easiest guys going and he wants more. He wants to learn, he wants to know it now. So he’s very eager on the daily and obviously wants to get better.”

It’s not Burns’ first time going to a new team after a long stint in another city. Drafted No. 20 overall in 2003 by Minnesota, Burns played seven seasons with the Wild before he was traded to San Jose in the summer before the 2011-12 season.

“I don’t remember too much about it,” Burns said of the adjustments he made more than a decade ago in moving to the Sharks from Minnesota.

Brent Burns. (James Guillory / USA Today)

Fellow Hurricanes defenseman Brady Skjei has a more recent experience of being traded to a new team for the first time. Skjei was dealt to Carolina right before the 2020 trade deadline, leaving the Rangers team that had drafted him almost eight years earlier and with whom he had played his first 307 NHL games.

“Everyone feels like you’re gonna be in the one spot for your career,” Skjei said, “and that’s usually not how it happens, how it works out, so it was tough.”

Skjei, a left-handed defenseman, had a pretty nice landing spot — opposite of Brett Pesce on Carolina’s shutdown pairing.

“It was a pretty smooth transition for both of us,” Skjei said of pairing up with Pesce. “I mean, obviously playing with a guy like him who is a really strong defenseman and a good player, it makes it really easy for me.”

Pesce and Skjei not only play together at even strength but are usually paired together on the penalty kill. Since the start of the 2020-21 season, no defense pairing has played together more in all situations than Skjei and Pesce.

Fourth on the list, despite not being on the same team this season, are Burns and Mario Ferraro, who were mainstays together on the Sharks’ defense since the latter reached the NHL in 2019.

That kind of chemistry is hard to replicate.

“It takes time. It doesn’t matter what you do,” Burns said. “There’s so many little things that just happen naturally over time. You can see it with (Pesce and Skjei). I just love watching how they react and interact on and off the ice. You can tell it’s a special partnership.”

If there’s anyone who makes for an ideal new partner, it’s Jaccob Slavin, who is now paired with Burns.

For the third straight year, Slavin has a new player on the right side of his pairing, having played with Dougie Hamilton two seasons ago and Tony DeAngelo last year. Both of those players thrived next to Slavin — and cashed out to the tune of a combined $73 million in contracts.

“Slavo covers a lot of ground,” Brind’Amour said. “So if there’s mistakes, he can make up for them. No matter who we’ve played with Slavo the last few years, he’s elevated the game for that pair.”

With Burns signed for two more seasons after this one, he and Slavin should have plenty of time to adjust. Having one of the league’s best defensive defensemen on his opposite side has helped Burns from Day 1.

“It takes time to get chemistry,” Burns said. “It doesn’t matter what it is. Hockey is a game of five guys in a unit. It does take time to figure out how to use each other and how to get better with each other.

“To see (Slavin) up close, I definitely didn’t realize it, the details of his game and how good he is.”

Pesce, who played with Slavin early in their career after both made their NHL debuts about a month apart in 2015, has seen how Slavin can help a new partner adjust.

“When you’re that good, you can stick him with anyone and he’ll make them look like an all-star,” Pesce said of Slavin. “Obviously, Burnsie’s a world-class player, so I see them getting better each game.”

Then there are Carolina’s systems, which require a lot of the defensemen. Burns said the hardest part has been in-game reads.

“We ask a lot from our D, so I don’t think he’s used to that part of it,” Gleason said. “For how much we ask from the D, every single zone, all three of them — it’s more of a skating game that we want from our D, so it’s definitely a big transition for sure.”

From each game to the next, one can see Burns picking more and more of what the Hurricanes want him to do. Whether it’s pinching in from the point to keep the puck in the offensive zone or continuing his normal habit of shooting at will, the 6-foot-5, larger-than-life defenseman is finding his way on the ice in Carolina.

“I think it just takes time,” Burns said, “but it really has been as smooth as it could be.”

(Top photo of Brent Burns: James Guillory / USA Today)


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