On Thanksgiving Day 2013 the San Jose Sharks, fresh off a thrilling shootout victory over the Los Angeles Kings, were first in the Pacific Division with a 16-3-5 record. They boasted a whopping +32 goal differential that ranked second in the league only to the St. Louis Blues team they would crush 6-3 a day later.
What a difference a year makes.
This Thanksgiving the Sharks are fifth in the Pacific, outside playoff position, at 10-10-4 with a minus-4 goal differential and 20 fewer goals scored in the same number of games. There are myriad reasons for this, ranging from a road-heavy early schedule to an offensive regression by some of their young players to plain old bad luck, but given how similar this season's roster looks on paper compared to last year's it makes sense to focus on the team's one substantive offseason change: moving Brent Burns back to defense.
Ultimately that's the biggest difference between the Sharks team that steamrolled the league through the first quarter of last season and the one that currently finds itself outside of a playoff spot, a historically ominous sign at this point in the campaign. Last year's squad had three lines that could score at even-strength with regularity, buoyed by Burns' dominant presence on the forecheck and in the scoring area with the top line and the resulting luxury of Joe Pavelski centering the third, while this year's team lacks offensive depth and has a 5-on-5 goal scoring rate better than only the Winnipeg Jets and Buffalo Sabres.
Again, Burns manning the blueline rather than wreaking havoc on the wing isn't the only reason for this; no single player is quite that valuable. It's true that the Sharks should expect an uptick in their woeful 6.3% 5-on-5 shooting percentage—though perhaps not as much of one as you'd think, given that they shot just 6.9% at evens from 2010 through 2013, prior to Burns' first full season at forward. It's also true that key forwards like Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto have been underperforming offensively which is as significant a reason for San Jose's even-strength struggles as the absence of Burns up front. But the Sharks are 22nd in the league in 5-on-5 shot rate and are struggling nightly to create more than a handful of grade-A chances at even-strength. And even the aforementioned individual struggles aren't occurring in a vacuum; Hertl's early-season dominance last year came almost exclusively with Burns on his opposite wing while Pavelski being freed up to center Nieto or Tommy Wingels would likely provide those players an offensive boost. To give themselves the best chance at saving this season by becoming one of the few teams to make the playoffs after being out of it on Thanksgiving, it's time for the Sharks to cut their losses and move Burns back to forward.
Burns is a mediocre defenseman at best
What should make this decision a much easier one is the fact that Burns has been average at best so far on the blueline. When announcing the decision to move him back, Doug Wilson spoke of Burns in the same breath as franchise defensemen like Drew Doughty and P.K. Subban. Burns' play so far on defense makes those comparisons seem ridiculous in hindsight. The venerable Jake Barrow has been tracking zone exits for the Sharks this season. According to his data, through the first 21 games of the season, Burns successfully advanced the puck out of the defensive zone 101 times. He turned the puck over while trying to advance it 110 times. When Burns touched the puck in the defensive zone over the first quarter of the season it was more likely to end up on an opponent's stick than result in a successful zone exit for the Sharks. That's not exactly what you want to see out of the guy you shifted back to defense specifically for his supposed puck-moving abilities.
Those turnovers, his general permissiveness in the neutral zone and poor reads in his own end have combined to result in Burns having extremely poor defensive statistics in the early going. With Burns on the ice at 5-on-5, the Sharks have given up an average of 59.5 shot attempts against per 60 minutes, good for the 35th-worst Corsi Against/60 among the 168 defensemen who have logged at least 200 5-on-5 minutes this season. San Jose gives up an average of 6.5 more shot attempts against per 60 minutes with Burns on the ice compared to when he's on the bench, the 19th-worst differential among qualifying defensemen. The team also gives up more than a full extra goal per 60 5-on-5 minutes with Burns on the ice compared to off it, although in fairness his .900 on-ice SV% should regress a bit. Not all of that is on Burns, of course, as he's played the bulk of his minutes alongside 19-year-old rookie Mirco Mueller, but it's worth noting Burns' defensive numbers have actually been worse in his minutes away from Mueller. Being paired with Marc-Edouard Vlasic full time would very likely improve Burns' defensive results but that wouldn't make Burns a better defenseman, it would simply be another data point suggesting Vlasic is one of the best in the league. It would also require Todd McLellan to split up one of the most effective shutdown pairings in the NHL and one of the few bright spots on his roster.
The only way to sensibly argue Burns hasn't been an unmitigated disaster on defense so far is to point at his offensive numbers. To a large extent that's fair and it's the reason I consider his play on the blueline mediocre rather than awful. Burns has 19 points in 24 games and has single-handedly powered the Sharks to victories like their comeback win in Dallas. But if you're going to judge Burns solely on his offensive output why not play him at forward where he'll undoubtedly score at a much higher rate? Because, first of all, Burns isn't going to be able to maintain his current even-strength scoring pace at defense. He currently has a 5-on-5 shooting percentage of 11.1%—only one regular defenseman in the entire NHL last season shot over 5% at evens. Burns has also registered points on 69.2% of the 5-on-5 goals he's been on the ice for—Victor Hedman's 58.2% individual points percentage led all regular blueliners last year. Both of those percentages are good bets to crater over the remainder of the season. Burns' ability to get shots off is giving the Sharks a legitimate offensive push, no doubt about that, as the team averages more shot attempts per minute with Burns on the ice than any other defenseman. But his even-strength production so far has been a bit of a mirage and, besides, if you're only going to care about what he accomplishes in the offensive zone just let him loose at wing where he can do far more offensive damage. Points from defensemen don't count for extra.
Weighing Burns' defensive struggles against his offensive prowess through the lens of his overall impact on possession shows that the Sharks are slightly worse at controlling play with Burns on the ice at even-strength compared to him off it, despite Burns starting more shifts in the offensive zone than in his own end and being largely shielded from top opposing forwards courtesy Vlasic and Braun's work in that department. Perhaps even calling Burns break-even is a bit generous given that the Sharks have been heavily outscored with him on the ice at even-strength but we'll assume his 968 PDO will normalize at some point. In looking at Burns' overall performance in his first 24 games back on defense, the best you can say is that he simply hasn't moved the needle in one direction or the other. That might have been passable if we weren't aware of the opportunity cost the Sharks are incurring by using him in this role. It might be okay if we didn't know just how dominant Burns is as a forward.
It worked before, it can work again
But we do know how dominant he is up front and the impact Burns can make on the wing is undeniable. Only Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Max Pacioretty, Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews scored more 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes than Burns did during his season-and-a-half at wing. Only twelve total forwards, all of them superstars except for Sidney Crosby comfort goat Chris Kunitz, averaged more points per 60. It isn't merely about the individual scoring stats either; Burns' impact on both even-strength offense and puck possession, as well as the additional marginal effects of moving players like Pavelski into roles they can crush, significantly improved the entire team in every conceivable category. Including the first 24 games of this season, here's how the Sharks have fared since the end of the most recent lockout with Burns up front compared to games where he isn't playing forward:
|Since 2013||Record||Points %||5v5 Shots For/60||5v5 Goals For/60||Fenwick Close%|
|With Burns as a forward||58-28-6||66.3||33.0||2.51||55.7|
|Without Burns as a forward||27-20-14||58.6||28.2||1.82||51.0|
The most frustrating part of where the Sharks currently find themselves is how thoroughly predictable it was to see coming. San Jose is running into the exact same issues with regards to generating even-strength offense that they did for much of the 2011-12 season and the entire lockout-shortened 2013 season up until they moved Burns up front, slotted Pavelski at third-line center and shipped out some dead weight. They could finally light the lamp again at evens down the stretch and into the 2013-14 campaign, when they finished 7th in the league in 5-on-5 scoring rate despite a bevy of injuries to key forwards. They're currently 28th this season despite having stayed largely healthy. James Sheppard deserves a lot of credit for improving his two-way game in the middle and Barclay Goodrow has been a pleasant surprise but these aren't forwards you can build a third line around if you hope to get anything resembling consistent offensive contributions from it. Joe Pavelski is a great winger but he isn't nearly fast enough to be the primary forechecker on a line with Hertl and Thornton.
Burns fit McLellan's dump-and-chase-heavy, 2-1-2 offensive zone forecheck-reliant system perfectly because he was the league's best first forward in. He was a speedy, physical, puck-retrieving presence who seemed to complement Hertl's game extremely well in the early going last season and there's no reason to think he wouldn't be able to ignite the stagnating young forward again. Reunite those two with Thornton, put Marleau, Couture and Nieto together, have Pavelski center Wingels and Sheppard and ice a legitimately energetic fourth line of Goodrow, Andrew Desjardins and Tyler Kennedy and you once again have a deep offense capable of sending wave after wave over the boards and with enough center depth to create mismatches against any team (when Raffi Torres returns from injury, the Sharks would even have the option of Sheppard centering Goodrow and Kennedy for one of the league's best fourth lines). If the Kings and Blackhawks proved anything it's that you need four lines that are a threat to score in order to win the Stanley Cup. On too many nights this season the Sharks have had one or, at best, two. That's not good enough.
Replacing Burns on the blueline shouldn't be difficult
More On Burns
Demers for Dillon swap entrenches Burns at D
One of the tacit messages sent by the Sharks' trade of right-shooting Jason Demers for lefty Brenden Dillon is that Burns probably isn't returning to the wing any time soon.
More On Burns
The biggest question is who would replace Burns' 18 even-strength minutes a night on the blueline (he still could, and should, man the point on the power play as he did when he played forward last season). That's certainly a non-trivial issue. After all, the logic behind moving Burns back to defense was to fill the hole left by Dan Boyle's departure. The thing is, as detailed earlier, Burns' results at even-strength have been far from irreplaceable. The Sharks don't need to replace Burns with a defenseman capable of scoring at the same rate Burns has so far this season because Burns won't be able to maintain his current scoring pace on the blueline. Neither could Boyle, who ranked 144th among 174 qualifying defensemen in even-strength scoring rate over his final two seasons in teal.
Burns moving up front would likely fix much of the Sharks' current offensive woes on its own meaning whoever replaces his minutes on defense just has to be able to play in the top four while holding their own in terms of possession and goal difference. If that's someone like Mike Green or Cody Franson who can add offense on top of those attributes, all the better. But an understated two-way blueliner capable of making a steady first pass like Jeff Petry would be fine too. Trading Jason Demers for Brenden Dillon, while a clear upgrade for the Sharks, hurts a bit here in that they no longer have a right-side defenseman they can comfortably slide into a top-four role. But even a rookie like Matt Tennyson, if paired with Dillon, probably wouldn't be much more of a defensive liability than Burns has been so far this season. At the very least an internal option like Tennyson or Taylor Fedun could be a stop-gap solution.
Whenever this discussion comes up there tends to be a disconnect between envisioning what Burns could or should be on the blueline and accepting what he actually is: a decent second-pairing defenseman who gives up at one end just about everything he creates at the other. At forward, he's an elite first-line winger who bumps everyone one notch down the depth chart to produce mismatches further down the lineup. It's much easier for the Sharks to find, either internally or on the trade market, the former player than the latter. Given their inability to score at even-strength, it's much more important the Sharks have the latter player than the former. No, one move isn't going to magically fix everything that's wrong with the Sharks but among all the possible options they have to choose from at this point, from firing Todd McLellan to making a panic trade to staying the course and relying on Torres to save the day, this would be the easiest and lowest-risk with potentially the highest reward.