Sharks vs. Predators: Who's in and who's out when Burns returns?

Frederick Breedon

San Jose hosts Nashville in the final game of their six-game homestand. With Jason Demers healthy and Brent Burns likely back soon, who stays and who goes on the Sharks' blueline?

At some point in the near future, Brent Burns will realize milk was a bad choice, shave off his Ulysses-S.-Grant-on-crack beard and make a triumphant return to the ice in a Sharks sweater. With Jason Demers having already recovered from his wrist injury, the coaching staff will be forced to make some interesting but difficult lineup decisions on defense not very long from now.

A healthy Burns and Demers would give the Sharks eight top-six NHL defensemen with six roster spots to fill on a nightly basis. This is a good problem to have but a tricky one to navigate. Burns, Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brad Stuart are locks to occupy the blueline's top four slots but there are four legitimate candidates for the third pairing.

It's only been seven games, but Matt Irwin has looked like he deserves to stay with the big club. He's been one of the few Sharks defensemen willing to challenge opposing forwards at his own blueline, his breakout passes are accurate, he has engaged in and won puck battles on a regular basis and his awareness in the offensive zone has provided Boyle with more room to operate than the veteran has ever had at even-strength during his Sharks career. By the numbers, he ranks 3rd in the NHL in Relative Corsi among defensemen who have appeared in at least five games this year and is first on San Jose's blueline in on-ice shot differential despite starting shifts in his own end more often than the opponent's. Small sample and all that, but at least so far, Irwin's excellent two-way play has been reflected in his underlying numbers. Unfortunately for Irwin, he's the team's only waiver-exempt defenseman and would therefore be an easy choice to send back to Worcester to free up a roster spot for Burns.

Demers is coming off a disappointing season, although that was at least partially due to having to spend a substantial chunk of it dragging Colin White around the ice. He was the Sharks' second-best defenseman in 2010-11 and his standout play in Finland's competitive SM-liiga during the lockout might indicate he's capable of returning to that level of play, particularly in a contract year. It's also undeniable Demers and Justin Braun combined to form a very effective tandem for the Sharks down the stretch in 2012.

Speaking of Braun, just like Demers was saddled with an immobile partner last season, Braun has had the misfortune of being attached at the hip to Douglas Murray so far in this one. So while he hasn't had the type of start to the season I was expecting after his brilliant 2011-12, I'm disinclined to place much blame on him for it. It's Murray who likely deserves to sit when the Sharks have their full complement of defensemen back together. He was the team's worst d-man last season and has been just as bad in the early going in 2013.

Likely the best course of action for the Sharks would be to either flip Murray for a mid-round pick or risk losing Petrecki to waivers by sending him down to the AHL to free up a roster spot for Burns. Irwin deserves to at least be the 7th and make his way into the lineup with regularity, although the Sharks should probably experiment with reuniting the Demers/Braun pairing, at least on a temporary basis. Of course, it goes without saying that there are definitely other options here. Regardless of how this all shakes out, the team getting Burns and Demers into the mix is cause for celebration. Despite their perfect record, the Sharks have had their share of neutral zone struggles so far this season that getting two of their best puck-movers back from injury should help fix.

Nashville Predators

@

San Jose Sharks
2-2-3, 7 points
7-0-0, 14 points
9th in Western Conference 1st in Western Conference

7:30PM PST | HP Pavilion | San Jose, Calif.
TV: CSNCA-HD | Radio: 98.5 KFOX, SJSharks.com
Know Your Enemy: On the Forecheck, Fang Faction

Projected Sharks Lineup

Patrick Marleau - Joe Thornton - Joe Pavelski
James Sheppard - Logan Couture - Ryane Clowe
Scott Gomez - Michal Handzus - Martin Havlat
T.J. Galiardi - Andrew Desjardins - Adam Burish

Brad Stuart - Dan Boyle
Marc-Edouard Vlasic - Jason Demers
Douglas Murray - Justin Braun

Antti Niemi
Thomas Greiss

Projected Predators Lineup

Colin Wilson - Mike Fisher - Martin Erat
Gabriel Bourque - David Legwand - Brandon Yip
Craig Smith - Nick Spaling - Sergei Kostitsyn
Rich Clune - Paul Gaustad - Matt Halischuk

Scott Hannan - Shea Weber
Roman Josi - Kevin Klein
Hal Gill - Ryan Ellis

Pekka Rinne
Chris Mason

The early returns on Nashville's first post-Suter season aren't pretty. They've managed to eke out wins in close games and pick up a few loser points along the way to stay artificially competitive in the West but their actual play has left a lot to be desired so far. At even-strength, through seven games, the Predators have earned just 226 shot attempts while yielding 280, a 44.7% Corsi rate that ranks 29th in the league (and doesn't improve all that much after ignoring blocked shots and looking purely at score-close situations). Normally I'd dismiss this as early-season randomness but the Preds were just as bad at controlling the play last season, when they made the playoffs on the strength of likely the best goalie in the conference in Rinne and a dominant power play.

Their power play hasn't been nearly as effective as it was in 2011-12 but it's still accounted for 4 of the 11 goals Nashville has scored this season. If the Sharks can stay out of the box in this one (16 kills in a row is impressive but it's probably best not to push their luck), they should have a very good chance of netting their eighth straight victory. Especially without the injured Patric Hornqvist, the Preds just don't have a way to generate offense at even-strength and spend a lot of their time hemmed in the defensive zone against even mediocre possession clubs. Based on reported line rushes at yesterday's practice, the Sharks appear to be going with some interesting combinations up front not dissimilar to the ones seen at the end of Thursday's game. They'll likely have plenty of time to practice creating chances together in the right end of the rink tonight. Go Sharks.

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