Ever engage in a thought experiment where you consider the merits of a ridiculous proposition, then slowly start to believe it?
Depending on who you ask, Alex Burrows is either one of the most overrated or underrated player in the NHL. If you’re a devoted hockey fan anywhere outside of Canada’s west coast, chances are the Canucks forward is nothing more to you than a pest whose stat line is generously inflated by his linemates. The fact he’s achieved 20-plus goals in each of the past four seasons only means Vigneault provided Daniel and Henrik a warm body to pass to while the gifted Swedes cycle their way through the entire league.
Granted, Burrows’ career was undoubtedly jump-started by his place on the Canucks’ top line, but the past season has seen him maintain the same pace while playing large chunks of time without them. With this in mind, is Burrows a candidate for Canada’s Olympic roster in 2014?
The answer, anywhere in the NHL, is a resounding…no. I must be that rare breed of Canucks fan – overzealously loyal, even after their latest playoff disappointment.
Your average Canucks devotee will always be quick defend Burrows honour against Ron MacLean and the rest of the world, but few will go so far as to say he is among the top 12 or 13 Canadian forwards in the game. I’m here to argue that as of yesterday, which marked Canada’s third straight quarterfinal exit from the IIHF World Championships, Burrows has played himself into Steve Yzerman’s consideration for the national team’s fourth line in 2014.
Here’s the short story: After missing the first week of competition with a suspected concussion, Burrows was slotted into the team’s fourth line with fellow grinders Andrew Ladd and Teddy Purcell. In five games with limited ice time, he recorded three goals and no assists, ranking second-last among Canadian forwards in point-scoring.
Admittedly, his numbers aren’t overwhelming by any stretch. Even at the NHL level, his points totals haven’t cracked the to forty among Canadian forwards in either of the past two seasons. In 2009-10, he ranked fourteenth, but many would see that as an outlier. At face value, Burrows still seems as well-suited for the Olympics as Mark Messier in a Canucks uniform.
But here’s where the argument naturally begins: Canada doesn’t need twelve superstar forwards, all capable of scoring at a point-per-game pace. They require about nine of those; the remaining three or four have to fill a defensively-responsible energy and provide the intangibles in a low-profile fashion. Starting to sound more like number 14 in blue and green?
Burrows has always played key minutes on the Canucks penalty kill, which has been perennially top-ranked. His role was no different on Team Canada these past two weeks. Intangibles? For the past four years, his plus-minus (a stat that is questionable in merit, but does measure to some degree a player’s impact at even strength) has been in the top 10 among Canadian forwards. In two of those years, so have his takeaway totals. Burrows is underrated as a defensive forward and while maintaining the same level of tenacity, his penalty minutes have decreased from 179 in 2008-09 to 90 this past campaign.
A good fourth-liner is also timely. Enter Burrows' proverbial "slaying of the dragon" and overtime-winner against Boston in last year's playoff run. In 2011-12, he scored seven game-winners, tenth among Canadian forwards. At the World Championships, his first goal of the tournament started Canada’s 5-3 comeback win against Finland. The next game, he scored shorthanded against Kazakhstan (I know… it’s Kazakhstan) when a powerplay goal against would have cut the lead to just 2-1 in the second period. Finally, his quarterfinal goal in the third period would have stood as the game-winner against Slovakia had Canada not collapsed into itself to finish the contest.
When you look at what Canada’s gold-winning fourth line was in 2010, however, imagining Burrows as a replacement for the likes of Patrice Bergeron and Mike Richards once again seems ludicrous. But the history of Canadian rosters at high-profile tournaments reveal selections that seem far more unlikely than Burrows. Rob Zamuner, anyone? Kris Draper ring any bells? (1998 Olympics and 2004 World Cup, respectively.) Both stand out as players who, on paper, seemed out of place, but subjectively, they filled a need for the sort of player that I think Burrows meets and exceeds.
The reasons against are many and the likelihood is minimal. Nobody will really complain when he isn’t even short listed, including me. But you cannot say that Burrows doesn’t play the game in a way that could benefit Team Canada's Olympic team if it was chosen today. Who knows? Maybe Yzerman will throw us all a curveball. Then we'll see if Burrows can wrap around Tim Thomas in an American uniform too, come 2014.