Analysis: Acquisition of Brent Burns is a clear win for San Jose
For three years Fear The Fin has beaten the drum on acquiring a legitimate top pairing defenseman that can play in all situations. It has been the achilles heel of this team for so long now that expecting things to change in a positive way always felt like wishful thinking and a fascination with the unattainable.
Brent Burns finally changes all that.
He provides San Jose with a stellar foil to the minutes munching of Dan Boyle, vastly improves a power play that didn't need much improving anyways, and instantly solves the need for a blueliner that the Sharks have desperately required for some time. It's a move that will be the biggest addition San Jose can conceivably make this summer, setting them up for a successful 2011-2012 season with a week left until the beginning of free agency.
Although the Sharks have always had the aura of a Stanley Cup contender surrounding them heading into the offseason, the roster heading into July 1st has never been this good. Top six forward group? Check. Top four defenseman? Check. Goaltending situation? Check. From here on out it is all about identifying and signing third/fourth line forwards and a defensive defenseman. And while those pieces are immensely important to a team's ability to go deep in the playoffs, they are transactions that are infinitely easier to make compared to one that involves a number two d-man that has shown flashes of being a franchise player.
Consider this-- during the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, the San Jose Sharks committed to Niclas Wallin for a season. During the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, the San Jose Sharks committed to Brent Burns for a season.
An excellent skater, Burns is a premier offensive defenseman in a League where these types of players are at a premium. He scored 17 goals last season for the Wild, tied for the team lead in power play goals with eight, posted 25:02 in ice time, and played a large amount shorthanded (2:42) as well as on the man advantage (3:04). He's a big minutes player who can begin to ease the workload off of Dan Boyle's shoulders, something that is a net positive for San Jose considering Boyle's minutes have begun to take a toll on his play during the last two seasons.
Where Burns will benefit the team the most is on the power play. As we mentioned before, Burns' eight power play goals tied for the team lead last year in Minnesota. He has an excellent slap shot that he gets on net with frightening consistency (170 last season) and will come into training camp as San Jose's most potent weapon from the point. He can move the puck up the ice well with a good first pass, has skating ability that is rivaled only by Dan Boyle, and is aggressive when pinching in the offensive zone.
By all accounts Burns will be a huge part of the Sharks offensive output next season, even if he doesn't manage to repeat on his 10.0 shooting percentage (Burns had a 6.3 S% in his previous three years). Furthermore, his slap shot is one that produces a fair amount of rebounds that the Sharks forward group can clean up in front of the net.
Despite giving up the extremely talented Devin Setoguchi, who seemed to be on his way towards scoring 30 goals next season on San Jose's top line, the addition of Burns on the backend will not hurt San Jose's offensive production. At worst they break even, and at best, Burns is an adrenaline shot to the heart that will be compared to the transformative powers Boyle bestowed upon San Jose's offense when he was acquired three years ago from Tampa Bay.
Not all is rosy when it comes to Burns however. Although his offensive game is one that should cause a few circuit breakers to explode in HP Pavilion throughout the course of the year, Burns is a mixed bag defensively. He was a -15 in 2009-2010 and a -10 in 2010-2011, finishing second to last and last respectively amongst all Wild blueliners. Part of that can be attributed to his situational play-- he was second on the team in terms of quality of competition last year and had the fourth toughest zone starts (beginning 57.4% of his faceoffs in his own end)-- but part of that is also due to the risky game he is known to play.
With 80 giveaways last season (the nearest defenseman, Marek Zidlicky, had 33) as well as a propensity for taking penalties (1.1 per 60 minutes of ice time, which would have been the worst on San Jose this year), there should be some reasonable trepidation here when the puck is in San Jose's end. Which isn't to say that Burns is a liability on the ice-- after all, you don't lead your team in TOI if you are. However, it is fair to state that Burns will produce moments of frustration for his team when he encounters the inevitable poor decision in his own zone.
Burns has the potential to be a legitimate shutdown defenseman in this League but unless he vastly improves in his own end this offseason, those improvements will come gradually in fits and starts. Pairing him with a solid defensive defenseman, like Marc-Edouard Vlasic, is the route San Jose will take in order to ensure they are getting the best value out of their new addition.
Burns also dealt with the injury bug in two seasons preceding 2010-2011. He was healthy last year, playing in 80 games for the Wild, but only managed to play in 59 and 47 games in two seasons prior. Forty eight of those missed games were due to a pair of concussions sustained in two separate years, one of which caused his agent to criticize the organization for misdiagnosing his symptoms and putting him at a health risk. He also had shoulder surgery in the 2009 offseason after playing through the injury during the season.
As much as you can pick apart Burns' game however, there is still so much here to like that it makes these issues secondary to the expansive strides San Jose made yesterday. Burns is a franchise caliber defenseman who made the transition to the blueline upon entering the NHL in 2003. In a position where most players take until their mid to late-twenties to fully develop, there is still a lot of room for growth. Which is a relative statement of course-- as of today Burns is probably the second best defenseman on the Sharks even if his skill set stays stagnant.
Provided the Sharks retain his services next offseason when he will be an unrestricted free agent, Burns is a player you can truly build a blueline around. With Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jason Demers already blossoming into quality NHL defenseman, that's an exciting outlook for the future of the club. Especially at a position where they have been severely lacking historically.
In Minnesota Burns was forced to be the man, required to lead the blueline, and expected to be the cornerstone of the team alongside the immensely talented Mikko Koivu. In San Jose he will be expected to do nothing other than provide further stability to a defensive core that is beginning to look better and better by the moment. The minutes and production will certainly be expected to stay the same if not improve, and there is no doubt that the Sharks will be counting on Burns to deliver in key situations.
However, he is no longer expected to be a guy that the franchise has to hang its hat on. That fact alone is reason to suspect the reduced importance of his game relative to his teammates will produce fortuitous situations that the young and talented defenseman can capitalize on.
Brent Burns isn't everything the Sharks need this offseason. There is a penalty kill to improve and scoring depth to acquire.
But if you had to name one position San Jose had to improve on in order to win the Stanley Cup, it was at the top of their defensive depth chart.
The Sharks went out and got it.