SUNRISE, Fla. Paul Martin is known around San Jose as the Wookie whisperer because Brent Burns emerged as one of the NHLs top blue liners after he became his defensive partner in 2015-16.
But when it comes to getting the reigning Norris Trophy winner in the frame of mind to succeed, no one speaks the Wookie tongue better than Florida Panthers head coach Bob Boughner, who will reconnect with Burns when the Sharks (13-8-2) roll into Sunrise, Fla. Friday.
Its no secret that I really loved having him coach me. I learned a lot from him, I was feeling good, Burns said, reflecting on Boughners two-year tenure as the Sharks defensive coach.
You always knew where you stood with him. I knew he had a lot of confidence in me, thats huge for a player.
The Panthers coach wound up being the perfect voice for Burns at the right moment of his career.
Boughner joined the Sharks coaching staff as one of head coach Pete DeBoers first hires a year after Burns made his transition back to the blue line following a season-and-a-half at forward. Burns, whos nicknamed the Wookie because of his resemblance to the hairy creature, Chewbacca, from Star Wars, struggled to re-acclimate himself to the backend in 2014-15, posting a minus-nine rating while shuffling through five defensive partners.
As the Sharks missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, calls for Burns return to forward blared in the mainstream media and throughout the Twitterverse. The debate over Burns rightful position proved to be a source of tension between general manager Doug Wilson and former-head coach Todd McLellan, as well.
But when DeBoer took over as head coach in May 2015, he put an end to the conversation, handing the Burns project over to Boughner, who logged 630 games as an NHL defenseman between 1995 and 2006.
He said, no more of the back and forth this guys a defenseman, Boughner said, recalling his first summer meeting on the Sharks coaching staff. It was a good move on his part. Playing back and forth, and switching positions, theres a lot of little things that, defensively, he had to clean up, and thats where I came in. We studied it every day.
Boughner quickly recognized another aspect of Burns game that needed cleansing: his mindset.
According to Boughner, Burns biggest issue is the pressure he puts on himself to deliver for his teammates. He hates letting down the guys on the bench, so hes unnecessarily hard on himself when he makes a mistake, which can produce a snowball effect on the ice.
Boughner, 46, developed a knack for knowing what strings to pull with which player while coaching junior hockey with the Ontario Hockey Leagues Windsor Spitfires from 2006 to 2015. He realized that Burns is the type of player who needs, a shoulder to lean on, because he reacts to positive reinforcement way more than negative messaging.
Boughner took a different approach than former-assistant coach Jim Johnson, who developed a reputation for being more of a drill sergeant with the Sharks blue line.
If he made a mistake, it would bother him for the next 10 minutes, Boughner said of Burns.
He cares a lot. He has a big heart. For me, it was concentrating on what he does well and why hes so good, and instilling it in his head every day: No one can shoot like you can shoot. No one can dominate a game with the heavy minutes that you play.
With his newfound confidence, Burns took off in the second half of the 2015-16 season, setting franchise records for goals (27) and points by a defenseman (75) while becoming the first blue liner other than Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque to register more than 350 shots in a season.
Burnss encore was even more impressive. Last year he became the second defenseman since Paul Coffey in 1988-89 to score 29 or more goals in a season. He also set a Sharks scoring record with 76 points while leading the NHL in shots on goal (320), earning the franchises first Norris Trophy.
Martin said Boughner unlocked Burns offensive potential by giving him a pass to freelance within the teams structure.
Nowadays, its all xs and os, and video, and attention to detail. The coaches are in control of every situation, he said. Brents more of a free-range guy. You dont want the coach saying to him, Hey, you didnt make the right play and then he gets self-conscious. He has to be allowed to make plays.
But with Boughner in Florida this season, and Rob Zettler leading the Sharks defense, Burns offensive numbers are taking a dive. Burns didnt score his first goal until last Friday in his 21st game. He has just 11 points in 23 games.
Nevertheless, the 32-year-old blue liner leads all NHL defenseman in shots on goal (93), the same number he had through 23 games last season, suggesting that he isnt getting the bounces right now.
Hes still the best shooter from the backend that any team has, Boughner said. Sometimes, its puck luck. Sometimes, its the forwards getting in and screening the goalie.
When Boughner met up with Burns in San Jose prior to the Sharks-Panthers game Nov. 16, his former-protege gave him a 25-year-old bottle of scotch, a signed copy of ESPN The Magazines Body Issue 2017 and a hunting knife.
Boughner, in turn, gave Burns a pinch of advice, though he didnt want to blow too much wind into Burnss sails, goal-scoring drought or not.
I said,Hey, youre playing good, stay with it. But I was worried about our team, Boughner said. I told him you can score but not that night.’