2011-2012 San Jose Sharks Season Review: Brent Burns

The Sharks' biggest acquisition of the 2011 offseason was Brent Burns, picked up from the Minnesota Wild on draft day in exchange for Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and a first rounder that turned into Zach Phillips and later signed to a five-year contract extension averaging $5.76 million per year that kicks in this July. The objective of the move was to shore up the Sharks' top four on the blueline with the type of effective two-way defenseman the team had missed in 2010-11 following Rob Blake's retirement. Although Burns likely fell short of some of the fanbase's more unrealistic expectations from a counting stats perspective, he was full value as a belated Blake replacement, controlling play against very good opponents.

This has become pretty well-worn territory throughout this season review series but a lot of Burns' production issues can be chalked up to some terrible shooting luck, both for him individually and the Sharks as a whole when he was on the ice. Among defensemen who appeared in at least 40 NHL games this year, no one in the league was on the ice for more shots on goal by their team per 60 minutes at 5v5 than Burns. Unfortunately, less than 7% of those shots found the back of the net, driving down Burns' even-strength point total. Burns' on-ice shooting percentage at evens ranked 159th among 198 qualifying defensemen. Hilariously, four regular Sharks defensemen (Colin White, Douglas Murray, Jason Demers and Justin Braun) all suffered from even lower on-ice shooting percentages than that. Breaking: the Sharks couldn't finish at all this year 5v5.

On the power play, among blueliners who played in 40 games and averaged at least 90 seconds a game on the man advantage, only teammates Dan Boyle and Jason Demers as well as the Jackets' Nikita Nikitin and Vancouver's Sami Salo were on the ice for more SF/60 than Burns. Again, a depressed on-ice shooting percentage (Burns ranked 65th among 86 qualifying defenders) was the culprit behind Burns' lackluster power play production. As we've discussed before in this space, on-ice shooting percentage over the course of a single season doesn't mean a whole lot; the important thing is Burns was making plays that helped him and his teammates generate a large volume of scoring opportunities both at evens and on the power play. If Burns can just replicate his performance from this year next season, it's a pretty safe bet his point production will more than live up to his contract.

Of course point totals alone aren't a particularly relevant way to judge a defenseman. His influence on puck possession, shot suppression and, ultimately, goal differential are more important factors to consider. Burns' plus-minus per 60 minutes ranked 28th among qualifying defensemen this year, a stat made more impressive by the fact that he accomplished that with by far the lowest PDO (on-ice shooting percentage + on-ice save percentage) of any blueliner in the top 30. That of course speaks to his terrific possession skills, the most intriguing aspect of which we previously discussed in the Douglas Murray review. Namely, the Murray/Burns pairing was absolutely terrible possession-wise which highlights the extent to which Burns absolutely killed it when he was paired with anyone other than #3.

In the roughly 970 minutes of 5v5 play Burns spent away from Murray, he posted a raw Corsi rate of +14.3 per 60 minutes, which would have ranked 6th in the entire league if sustained over the full season. Meanwhile, the -8.2 per 60 Corsi rate he managed when paired with Murray would have ranked 163rd out of 198 qualifying d-men. That's obviously a colossal drop and one that's difficult to easily explain. The working theory I developed while observing their play as a pairing over much of the season's second half was that Burns' over-reliance on moving the puck via skating rather than passing due to his generally errant work on the breakout (and his awe-inspiring skating ability) led to opposing teams focusing their energy on forcing him to make the pass, knowing that Murray wasn't anything close to a threat when handling the puck himself. Regardless of the reason for their odorous play as a pairing, if Murray is indeed back in teal next season, he shouldn't spend a minute alongside Burns at even-strength.

Brent Burns Statistical Overview

Season GP TOI/60 Corsi Rel QoC DZone% Corsi Rel PDO +/-/60 5v4 SF/60 5v4 GF/60
2011-2012 81 17.30 0.747 43.6% +8.0 1003 +0.56 58.5 5.8

FTF Grade: B+. As fun as Burns was to watch and as solid a season as he turned in based on the underlying numbers, a couple of things kept me from giving him an A here. First, he was heavily protected in terms of starting position for basically the entire season, starting a greater percentage of his shifts in the offensive zone than any other Sharks defenseman and than all but 22 defensemen league-wide who played at least 40 games. Additionally, as clear as it is that Murray was the boat anchor when the two played together, I'd contend that a truly elite defenseman should be able to keep his head above water with any NHL-caliber defense partner and it's certainly not like we're talking about Jason Strudwick or Jack Johnson here; Murray's been a capable top-four guy in the past. Still, one of Doug Wilson's most important tasks this offseason will be to find an upgrade to pair with Burns. Ryan Suter is a pipe dream and as much as I'd like to see Paul Martin in teal, spending nearly $18 million on three defensemen is probably not a recipe for success. Former Sharks Matt Carle and Brad Stuart are options on the free agent market; the latter seems almost desperate to sign with the Sharks while the former is the guy I'd really love to see come back to San Jose and would fit marvelously alongside Burns.

How would you grade Brent Burns' 2011-12 season?