Everyone loves an underdog and, for the Canucks, there’s no better underdog story than Alex Burrows. From toiling in the ECHL and playing high-level ball hockey to working his way up to the best line in the NHL with Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Burrows exemplifies the underdog.
Now, there’s another Burrows writing his own underdog story with the Canucks. Or, rather, Burroughs.
Heading into the Vancouver Canucks’ 2021 training camp, Kyle Burroughs wasn’t on anyone’s radar. With just five games of NHL experience, he wasn’t even a dark horse pick to make the team. Instead, he was expected to start the season in the AHL in Abbotsford. After all, the Canucks were seemingly set on the right side of their defence with Travis Hamonic, Tucker Poolman, Tyler Myers, and Luke Schenn.
Then Hamonic didn’t report to camp. Suddenly, Burroughs was in a battle to make the Canucks’ opening day roster as the extra defenceman on the right side. He parlayed that opportunity into not just a spot on the roster but a spot in the lineup.
"He deserves to be in the lineup with the way he's played."
Rookie defenceman Jack Rathbone spent the bulk of the preseason playing alongside the veteran Luke Schenn but when it came time for Wednesday’s season opener in Edmonton, it was Burroughs with Rathbone on the third pairing.
“The fact that he’s playing says a lot,” said head coach Travis Green prior to the game. “Exhibition’s a lot different from regular season but I think he deserves to be in the lineup with the way he’s played.”
Burroughs preseason performance was relatively quiet. He didn’t score any goals or wow fans with spectacular rushes up the ice. Instead, he played a simple, effective game defensively. He was physical when he needed to be and never overextended himself with the puck, instead making quick passes to open teammates to facilitate the breakout.
“He’s an aggressive guy, he’s smart, he knows his defensive details,” said Green. “He’s maybe surprised us a little bit with his play with the puck. We knew he was an aggressive player but his play with the puck and his hockey sense has been better than we thought, really. That’s probably why he’s in.”
After the game, Green was similarly effusive with his praise for Burroughs. Though he and Rathbone played limited minutes, the two limited dangerous scoring chances. Even when they were out on the ice against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl for a couple of shifts, they kept the puck in the offensive zone and out of danger.
“He quietly had a poised game,” said Green. “He made some subtle nice plays. Kind of what you'd want to see out of a young D. Didn't make any glaring mistakes and you know sometimes when you don't notice a guy a whole lot in the game that's not a bad thing, that's a good thing for a young defenseman.”
"You don't notice me, I think that's good."
On Friday morning, Burroughs joked about how not being noticed was exactly his job.
“Jack’s a heck of a player, he’s got a lot of skill, he moves really well,” said Burroughs. “For me, anytime that I can get him the puck and let him show his skills, and you don't notice me, I think that's good.”
Not all of his efforts went unnoticed. He jumped up smartly to the backdoor for one of the Canucks’ best scoring chances, taking a feed from Nils Höglander and nearly putting a bouncing puck five-hole on Mike Smith.
Green, however, had his eyes on a more subtle play.
“Even a simple play — I think it was the first period — where he knocks down a puck in front of the net,” said Green. “He has the hockey sense to know where [the puck] is.”
It may not have looked like much, but the play Green was talking about was a smart read by Burroughs, darting in front of his man in front of the net to knock down a shot attempt and immediately spark a rush the other way.
For Green to trust Burroughs to play with Rathbone speaks volumes. Both defencemen are rookies, though Burroughs is several years older. If Green has shown a preference for veterans in the past, Burroughs is certainly an atypical veteran.
And, if Rathbone earns more ice time as the season develops, it’s easy to see Burroughs’ ice time growing as well.
"I wore number seven growing up because of Brendan Morrison."
For Burroughs, even one game with the Canucks was a dream come true. Growing up in Langley, Burroughs was an avid Canucks fan as a kid and was a particular devotee of the West Coast Express.
“Those three guys, they were cornerstones for the organization,” said Burroughs. “I wore number seven growing up because of Brendan Morrison. Obviously, Markus Naslund himself was fun to watch and I still say to this day, anytime I'm in the box, I just think of Todd Bertuzzi when he's coming out of the box and he was scoring those breakaway goals. I'm always hoping for the opportunity.”
Nic Petan had already claimed number seven heading into camp, so how could Burroughs resist wearing Bertuzzi’s old number 44?
It was a long path to the Canucks, however. Burroughs was a seventh-round pick of the New York Islanders in 2013 and signed an entry-level deal with the Islanders in 2015. He never actually played a game for them, however, toiling in the AHL for five seasons. In fact, like the homophonic former Canuck, Burroughs had to pay his dues in the ECHL, albeit for just 18 games to Burrows’ 134.
Still, Burroughs played 324 games in the AHL. You can’t say he didn’t pay his dues.
"Being a hometown kid, I wasn’t sure I’d ever get the opportunity."
For the 2019-20 season, Burroughs was named captain of the Islander’s AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, which is a sure sign that you’re not getting called up to the NHL any time soon. The Colorado Avalanche, however, saw some potential in the young defenceman and traded for him before the 2020-21 season, signing him to a one-year deal with the Colorado Avalanche.
Burroughs finally made his NHL debut with the Avalanche last season but only played five games on a deep Colorado team. When he had the chance to sign with the Canucks, he jumped at the opportunity.
“When they called, my ears perked up for sure,” said Burroughs. “Being a hometown kid, I wasn’t sure I’d ever get the opportunity. Obviously, the opportunity came about and it was too exciting to pass up on. I’m just ecstatic.”
Now 26, Burroughs finally has a chance to become an everyday NHLer. Better late than never.