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Getting To Know You: Pat Burns

So who is Pat Burns, and why are some of us at MHH wetting ourselves at the prospect of the Colorado Avalanche hiring him as the head coach?

Pat Burns is notable for a number of things.  First, he's the only coach to have won the Jack Adams trophy (best coach) with three different teams.  He also won the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2003, his first year with that organization.  He was forced to leave coaching after the 2003-04 season ended because of a cancer diagnosis.

Burns has remained with the Devils organization as a scout/player development guy, and is currently an assistant coach with the Canadian team at the World Championship tournament.  Now that his cancer is in remission, he's made it clear that he is interested in a new head coaching job in the NHL.

Now, what kind of coach is Pat Burns?  He's most well-known for his Cup win with the Devils, and the Devils are most well-known for their perfection of the neutral zone trap and the defense-first strategy that killed goal scoring before the Lockout.  But Burns didn't invent the trap, he inherited it.

The trap first came to prominence during the expansion period of the early 1990s, in which more and more hockey teams fought for the same amount of overall talent, leaving goal scorers more spread out and rosters full of guys who would have been minor leaguers in the late 1980s.  Or so the theory goes.  The epitome of the trap was the 1994-95 Devils, who also won a Cup, but under the oversight of Admiral Jacques Lemaire.  

By the time Burns got the reigns, the trap had been the dominant style of play in New Jersey for almost ten years.  Also worth noting, Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur had been around the entire time.  When you have veteran talent like that, and a lack of top-end scoring up front, you don't rock the boat and dump the trap.

The top scorer for the Devils in 2002-03 was Patrik Elias with 57 points.  That's right, 57 points in 81 games.  The team as a whole scored only 216 goals, compared to the talent-heavy Red Wings (269), Avalanche (251), and Canucks (264).  Burns' top offensive guys that season were Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Gomez and Jeff Friesen.  None are terrible players, but they're no Pavel Datsyuk or Alex Ovechkin.  They're just not dynamic offensive players by any means.  On the flip side, Burns had Niedermayer, Stevens, Brian Rafalski and Brodeur on the back end.  Which group would you build a strategy around?

And worth noting is that Pat Burns didn't win the Jack Adams that season.  He won it with Montreal, Toronto and Boston---two of which were prior to the trapping era.

His first trophy came at the helm of the 1988-89 Montreal Canadiens, a team that scored 315 goals and had some great forward talent in Stephane Richer and flash-in-the-pan Mats Naslund.  The team won 51 games and the Prince of Wales trophy---without a trap system in place.

The 1989-90 Canadiens weren't quite as good, but they were still a scoring-oriented operation, with 288 goals led by 50 goal-scorer Richer.  Richer had 421 goals in 14 NHL seasons, so he definitely qualified as "forward talent."  Backing him up was Shayne Corson, who scored 31 goals and 75 points.  While the team enjoyed some superb defensive talent (a young Chris Chelios, Mathieu Schneider and Patrick Roy), it was built on a high-flying, fast attack system that Montreal had always been known for.  Maybe you've heard of Maurice Richard and Guy Lafleur.  No?  Those guys were kind of influential around The Forum for a long time.

Burns' second Jack Adams came with the 1992-93 Toronto Maple Leafs, also arguably the last really good Maple Leafs team.  Doug "How 'Bout Them Apples" Gilmour led the squad with 127 points, and though the Leafs weren't a high-scoring team compared to others (over 300 goals wasn't yet unheard of), they didn't employ a trap like the one that New Jersey became known for.

Finally, Burns won the Adams for his work with the 1997-98 Boston Bruins, which, judging by their overall record (39-30-13) and their top scorer (Jason Allison with 83 points), this was given to him for the same reason that Bruce Boudreau will probably win it with the Capitals this season: doing more with less.  It's impossible to argue that the trap had not taken precedence among most NHL teams by this point, but it wasn't Burns' creation and it was more a product of necessity (less talent) than design.  

What Pat Burns' record as a coach tells us is that he is capable of adapting his strategies to the players he has.  The fact that he won three Jack Adams trophies with three different franchies and a Cup with a fourth is extremely indicative of his flexibility.  If he's got the tools, he can probably lead them to success using whatever strategy works best.

Whereas Jacques Lemaire is hopelessly wed to the trap as a matter of principle (and to the detriment of talented players like Marian Gaborik), Pat Burns is not.  He's a dynamic coach with an impressive record and a great reputation.  He's got to be considered the top choice of Avalanche GM Francois Giguere---and just about every other coachless team in the league.