Moving Brent Burns back to defense is a mistake

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The most unexpected move the Sharks announced yesterday might also be the worst.

Most of what general manager Doug Wilson informed the media in a conference call yesterday was easy to predict. Impending unrestricted free agent Dan Boyle will not be returning and, while he leaves behind an unparalleled legacy on the blueline, it's easy to understand why he and the team will be parting ways. Marty Havlat has also played his final game in teal, as expected given what would have been a $5 million cap hit next season for a player the team scratched in six of seven playoff games. Wilson also said he has no regrets over signing Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau to matching contract extensions, as he shouldn't since losing the team's two best forwards for nothing this offseason would have been disastrous. The only unexpected announcement was that, in light of Boyle's departure, defenseman-turned-forward Brent Burns will be turned back into a defenseman. It's a curious gamble given how effective Burns was as a forward over the past season and change.

It's also a mistake.

I don't say that because I think Burns isn't capable of being a very good defenseman for the Sharks. Far from it. While he came under fire for perceived defensive deficiencies, mostly because many people who watch or cover the sport don't know how to properly evaluate defense, Burns was great on the San Jose blueline in 2011-12. Shifting him back to that position immediately addresses one of the team's biggest needs: speed on the blueline. When he wasn't forced to drag Douglas Murray around the ice, Burns was a perfectly capable play-driving, puck-moving defenseman during his first year in the Bay Area. In Burns' 974 5-on-5 minutes away from Murray that season, the Sharks controlled 55.9% of all shot attempts (and scored 55.6% of all goals) despite icing a forward corps that severely lacked depth. Burns successfully advanced the puck out of the defensive zone on 30.4% of his attempts to, one of the very best zone exit ratios in the league that season, while averaging 22 and a half minutes per night in all situations. He isn't Drew Doughty or P.K. Subban, despite Wilson's comparison of him to those defensemen, but he's similar stylistically and should be a solid top-pairing option. Those guys are hard to find.

But even harder to find is the kind of unrestrained physical force Brent Burns was as a power forward for the past season and a half. He was one of the most effective forecheckers in the league, excelled on the cycle and at protecting the puck along the wall in tandem with Joe Thornton and generated a boatload of scoring opportunities every time he stepped on the ice. Oh, and he scored. A ton. That might come as news to people who only look at the counting stats (Burns scored 31 goals and 37 assists in 92 games up front) but those undersell Burns' true offensive contributions and his real impact in transforming the Sharks from a team that couldn't buy a goal at even-strength for two and a half years into the 5th-best even-strength offense in the league. Burns was fairly useless on the power play (where, ironically, he lined up as a defenseman) and didn't receive primo 5-on-5 minutes; the best way to judge his production up front (or any forward's, really) is by adjusting it for ice time. In his 1245:24 of 5-on-5 ice time as a forward over the past two seasons, Burns averaged 1.20 goals and 2.41 points per 60 5-on-5 minutes. Let's see where that stacks up against all other NHL forwards who have logged at least 1000 5-on-5 minutes since 2013:

Player 5v5 Goals/60 5v5 Points/60
Rick Nash 1.37 2.23
Corey Perry 1.35 2.74
Max Pacioretty 1.28 2.29
Steven Stamkos 1.27 2.40
Jonathan Toews 1.24 2.66
Brent Burns 1.20 2.41
Phil Kessel 1.18 2.44
Jamie Benn 1.15 2.57
James Neal 1.14 2.23
John Tavares 1.13 2.25

Only six forwards have averaged more 5-on-5 goals per minute over the past two seasons than Burns-as-a-forward has. Only twelve forwards have averaged more 5-on-5 points per minute (not all of them are listed above since the table is ranked by goals but the others were Sidney Crosby, Taylor Hall, Ryan Getzlaf, Thomas Vanek, Chris Kunitz, Eric Staal, Tyler Seguin and Matt Duchene—not bad company). Only Alex Ovechkin generated more 5-on-5 shot attempts per minute than Burns this past season; if Burns had been fortunate enough to shoot 18.2% like Joe Pavelski did, he would have scored at a 54-goal pace with the vast majority of that damage done at even-strength. Obviously it isn't realistic to expect anyone to score on that high a percentage of their shots but the point is that, even with Burns' elite-level production as a forward so far, regression suggests that there's a very good chance he would have scored at an even higher rate next season had the Sharks kept him up front. Even beyond the production, Burns' impact on the Sharks after the switch can't be overstated. His ability to push the pace and be a force on the top line midway through the lockout-shortened 2013 season allowed Todd McLellan to move Joe Pavelski to third-line center and catalyzed San Jose's rise from a mediocre to high-end puck possession team and their corresponding rise in the standings down the stretch that year.

It isn't difficult to argue Burns' move to forward was far and away the biggest reason the Sharks made the playoffs in 2013

Since Burns arrived in San Jose at the start of the 2011-12 season, the Sharks are 60-39-20 with him out of the lineup or in the lineup as a defenseman, a 58.8% standing points percentage. They're 58-28-6 with him in the lineup as a forward, a 66.3% standing points percentage; that's a difference of twelve standings points per 82 games. They've gone from controlling 51.7% of all 5-on-5 shot attempts with the score close in the games where Burns hasn't played or hasn't played up front to 55.0% with Burns in the lineup as a forward—roughly the difference in puck possession between the Blackhawks and the Lightning. They averaged 1.97 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes without Burns up front compared to 2.52 with him there. Even ignoring the numbers, it isn't difficult to argue Burns' move to forward and subsequent success in that role was far and away the biggest reason the Sharks made the playoffs in 2013. Of course, it goes without saying that not all of that improvement, or even most of that improvement, is attributable to Burns' move up front; the Sharks relieved themselves of anchors like Michal Handzus, Douglas Murray and Ryane Clowe over that span, replacing them with better and younger players. But it's also clear that Burns' presence was a big part of Joe Thornton having his most productive even-strength season in four years, a big reason the Sharks were a far more difficult team to defend this season along with the three-line attack they were often able to ice thanks in large part to Burns holding down the fort on the top line. It's going to be awfully difficult to replace all of that.

The Sharks will try, and more likely than not the answer will be to keep Pavelski at wing on the top line hoping he can score 40 with Jumbo again (he can't). Barring any further additions to the forward corps (and Doug Wilson certainly didn't sound like someone who's going to be a big player in free agency—not that there are any available free agents outside Vanek who can conceivably replace Burns) the Sharks will once again be left with a wretched bottom six, something that plagued them throughout the Thornton era prior to Burns' move to forward. In a lot of ways, the Sharks will be left with the same team they had in 2011-12 (which produced the worst results of the Thornton era) minus one of that team's best players in circa-2012 Dan Boyle. James Sheppard might not be quite as bad a third-line center as Michal Handzus (although it's close), Brad Stuart still hasn't gone full Douglas Murray (but that's coming) and Tomas Hertl is an upgrade on Ryane Clowe but the team the Sharks currently have, with Burns penciled in as a defenseman, simply doesn't have the forward depth to compete with the top contenders in the west.

Even worse than that is the fact that Burns' move to the blueline doesn't even fix the blueline. Burns is a right-handed shot and unless the organization plans to play him, Justin Braun or Jason Demers (also both righties) on their off-side, all this move has done is bump Demers down into Boyle's now-vacated role on the third pairing. The defense still has a massive hole on the left side past Marc-Edouard Vlasic, one that will be filled by Brad Stuart; if there's one move the Sharks absolutely need to make this offseason it's ensuring the over-the-hill Stuart isn't playing top-four minutes. While there's still plenty of time for the Sharks to address that issue, the fact is that addressing it alone would have salvaged the defense corps. San Jose would be better off with a top four of Vlasic paired with Demers and a puck-moving left-side acquisition paired with Braun that allows them to keep Burns up front than they will be with whatever setup they end up icing.

Obviously a lot of this is premature and the extent to which moving Burns back to defense ends up being a mistake will depend on what other moves the Sharks make this summer. All of this is a moot point if they end up trading Joe Thornton, anyway (which would be a mistake in itself but that's a discussion for another time...or, preferably, never). Although I think Burns is capable of being an effective power forward without Thornton, I could definitely see the rationale behind playing him at defense were Doug Wilson to move his captain and completely restructure the forward corps. But in a vacuum, moving Burns back to defense seems to be a result of either reading too much into his "streakiness" as a goal-scorer (news flash: every single goal-scorer in the NHL is "streaky"), overrating his abilities as a defenseman (I suspect I like Burns as a defenseman more than most people but I still think comparing him to Doughty and Subban is insane) or lacking the creativity to fix the blueline through other means while keeping together one of the deepest forward groups in the NHL.

A lot has been made about Wilson's comments yesterday that the team may need to take one step backward in order to take two steps forward. Moving Burns to defense seems like taking one step forward then two steps back. It's a step forward in that it gives the team a good puck-moving defenseman capable of injecting speed into a blueline that lacks it but it's two steps backward in that it both robs the team of an elite power forward and does nothing to address a tremendously shallow left side. This isn't a great start to the Sharks' offseason and there's reason to expect things are only getting worse from here.

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