Last week, Brent Burns set himself up to be a San Jose Shark for a long time, and a very rich man. One wonders how many exotic snakes and RVs $64 million can buy, but that’s a conversation for another day. Today’s conversation revolves around how much of Burns’ new wardrobe and menagerie can be attributed to his most consistent defense partner, Paul Martin. Martin’s effect on Brent Burns is significant, and his effect on the team as a whole is consistent. He’s an old school defensive defenseman: when Paul Martin is on the ice, fewer things happen. This may not seem valuable as a spectator, because it’s boring, but he’s clearly valued by coaches and managers for his ability to play safe, effective, responsible hockey, and for his ability to tame a bit of the wildness embodied by our Wookie friend.
Paul Martin’s been around for a while now. Drafted out of the University of Minnesota by the New Jersey Devils in the second round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft 62nd overall, after earning two NCAA Division 1 Championships for the Golden Gophers, Martin played regularly for the Devils starting in 2003, barring a stint in Switzerland during the 2004-05 lockout. The Devils let Martin walk as a free agent when his contract expired in 2010, after which he signed a five year $25 million contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Martin was also a part of Team USA in the Olympics in 2006 in Turin (didn’t play), 2010 in Vancouver (also didn’t play), and in 2014 in Sochi (did play, yay!). After the expiration of his contract in 2015, Martin signed a 4 year, $19.4 million contract with the Sharks and we remember the rest.
Martin’s possession numbers have been pretty consistently solid. From 2007 (when we stepped into the light as a community and started tracking Corsi) to now, Martin only ever fell below 50% relative Corsi for in two seasons. Additionally, those dips can probably be attributed to the serious injury woes that befell the Penguins from 2012-2014. During the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, Evgeni Malkin missed 17 games to shoulder injury and concussion, and Sidney Crosby missed all of April with a broken jaw. The 2013-14 season was not a whole lot better, as the Penguins suffered the losses of Pascal Dupuis in December to a torn ACL, and of Kris Letang in January to a stroke. You can imagine how these two guys missing time might hurt a team’s possession stats.
In San Jose during this same time period, the Brent Burns Dilemma was in full swing. Following the extension of Matt Irwin in March of 2013, Burns was moved to right wing, where he scored 20 points in 23 regular season games to finish out the season. In 2013-14, Burns was a force at forward, scoring 48 points in 69 games, and recording his first career hat trick in a 6-3 rout of the St. Louis Blues. In August of 2014, however, San Jose’s lack of depth at defense was pretty apparent. The third most common unique defensemen pairing the previous yearwas Scott Hannan and Jason Demers, making up less than 10% of even strength ice time, and that was before the departure of Dan Boyle to free agency. As a result, Burns was moved back to defense.
Burns’ first full year back at defense was a mixed bag. In 82 games, Burns scored 60 points, continuing to be a dominant offensive force, but his plus/minus tanked, going from +26 in 2013-14 to -9 in 2014-15, and San Jose’s goal differential as a team changing from +49 to -4 didn’t help matters. Burns’ minutes, however, were more sheltered during his first year at defense than they were at forward, and his ability to suppress opposing teams’ scoring chances decreased anyway, as a lack of defensive responsibility became a concern.
Back in Pittsburgh, Paul Martin had staked out a pretty consistent role as Kris Letang’s partner, playing more than half of his ice time with the Canadian dynamo, and establishing himself as a responsible partner to a dynamic offensive defenseman who sometimes took a few too many risks. Letang’s most consistent defensive partner went from Olli Maatta to Paul Martin in 2014-15, and his possession numbers improved dramatically. Letang’s Corsi for per 60 increased by ten, his Corsi against per 60 decreased by five (this is the important bit), and as the WOWY chart shows, his time on ice with Martin was a whole lot safer. (You’ll also notice that Letang’s ice time without Martin was more effective at generating offense, this is at least partially due to spending 57% of his power play time as the lone defenseman, and only 13% of it with Martin.)
Now, I know what you’re thinking: But, Erik, how can you say with any certainty that Letang’s possession numbers got better due to spending half of his ice time with Paul Martin, when it could have been influenced by any number of other factors? Well, you’re right, hypothetical reader, I can’t say that for certain. What we could do is look at another defenseman with whom Martin is paired regularly and compare his performance pre- and post-Martin. It’s a shame we don’t have anyone like that handy.
During the 2015-16 regular season, Brent Burns spent more than 70% of his even strength ice time with Paul Martin. It seems that Doug Wilson saw how effective Martin had become at babysitting Kris Letang in Pittsburgh and saw a chance to bring in a babysitter for Brent Burns with plenty of on-the-job experience (also, Doug Wilson seems to really love the NCAA). It’s likely Wilson communicated this intent to new head coach Peter Deboer, but even if he didn’t, if a schmuck like me can figure it out, so too can a smart and seasoned head coach like Deboer.
From 2015 to the present, Paul Martin has had a similar effect on Brent Burns than the one he had on Kris Letang, if not one quite so pronounced. During the 2015-16 season, Burns spent 71% of his even strength ice time with Martin, and this season that number has increased to 78%. Like Letang, Burns’ Corsi against per 60 dropped considerably the season Martin was added to the Sharks’ blueline. Unlike Letang, however, Burns’ Corsi for per 60 also decreased. If we factor in that Martin’s Corsi per 60 numbers both increased with the move to San Jose, we can start to see the nature of this relationship. Burns dragged Martin up the ice, creating more chances for and against than he’s used to, and Martin dragged Burns back down to the defensive end to stifle them. This year, the benefits of Martin’s presence (preventing shots against) are still noticeable, but the downsides (hindering shots for) seem to have faded away somewhat.
Of note are the little sevens, indicating time spent on the ice with Martin. The black seven being in between the blue and red show pretty much what we’ve hypothesized here, Martin’s presence prevents shots/60 against, but unlike last year, Martin doesn’t seem to be hindering the shot attempt production that Burns generates to the degree that it did last year. I’m not suggesting that Paul Martin has turned a new leaf as a player at 35, and the season is young yet, but maybe these two are figuring each other out. When Paul Martin is on the ice with Brent Burns this year, fewer shot attempts come at the Sharks net, and a similar amount go toward the opponents’. That’s really good, and it goes a long way in making up for Burns’ greatest weakness as a defenseman, and making him the legitimate Norris trophy candidate he’s demonstrated himself to be.
Martin tends to be a little underappreciated in fan circles, as defensive defensemen are wont to be, but if we throw a little love his way every now and then while we fawn over Burns and his wonderful beard, we may get a better picture of what’s really happening. And maybe Burns can buy Paul Martin a nice steak with his newfound riches. Or a snake.