Could Brent Burns be unavailable for the season opener?

After playing through injury during the second half of last season, Sharks defenseman Brent Burns might not be ready to go when the NHL season begins in the coming weeks.

We still don't know when the 2013 NHL season will begin (although we know there will be one, which is more than enough for me) but the Sharks might be forced to ice a severely depleted blueline when it does.

After Justin Braun reportedly fractured a bone in his hand while playing in Finland (although his agent called an MRI inconclusive) and Jason Demers sustained a wrist injury during the Spengler Cup that will keep him out for at least three weeks if not more, San Jose apparently has more bad news awaiting them on the injury front as Brent Burns, one of the team's best defensemen, was coy when asked whether he would be ready for the season opener.

Burns is apparently still recovering from offseason surgery after playing the entire second half of the 2011-12 season with a sports hernia and groin injury. At first glance, the report is eyebrow-raising. According to the narrative, Burns finally settled into his role on the Sharks' blueline during the latter portion of his debut season in teal after struggling to adjust early on. While some of that is probably true (by eye, he appeared to steadily improve his accuracy on breakout passes and zone exits), digging a bit deeper into his 11-12 performance reveals that it's entirely plausible Burns played hurt after sustaining a knee injury in a collision with Oilers forward Ales Hemsky on January 23rd:

5v5 GF 5v5 GA 5v5 GF% 5v5 SF 5v5 SA 5v5 SF% 5v5 FF 5v5 FA 5v5 FF%
Before January 23rd 30 26 53.6% 492 359 57.8% 678 516 56.8%
After January 23rd 22 23 48.8% 344 347 49.8% 492 460 51.7%

Just a quick review of what these numbers actually mean since it's been a while: all data in this chart describes the Sharks' results at even-strength while Burns was on the ice last season. GF and GA are, respectively, goals scored and allowed by the Sharks with Burns on the ice while GF% is the percentage of all goals scored by both teams while Burns was on the ice that were scored by San Jose. SF, SA and SF% are the same idea but with all shots on goal included instead of just goals while FF, FA and FF% expand the sample size to include shots that missed the net as well, sometimes referred to as a team or player's "Fenwick" score.

After missing a game in Calgary the night after the Hemsky incident, Burns returned to the Sharks lineup following the NHL All-Star break and experienced a precipitous drop in his two-way effectiveness based on the numbers above. San Jose was significantly worse at controlling the flow of play and driving possession with Burns on the ice after his apparent injury than before it. The Sharks were outshot and outscored at evens when Burns stepped over the boards during the final 35 games of the 2012 schedule after he posted the best Fenwick% of any Shark prior to January 23rd.

It's difficult (and probably inaccurate) to pin the entirety of his decline on the injury. Burns went from being routinely paired with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, in the midst of the best season of his NHL career, during the first half of 2011-12 to playing predominantly with Douglas Murray, in the midst of his worst campaign, later on in the year. I can't really think of other factors driving the across-the-board tumble in Burns' underlying numbers though. He was used against second-tier opposing forwards all season, started shifts in the offensive zone at a pretty constant frequency throughout the year and, as far as his plus/minus goes, actually benefited from a better PDO over those final 35 games than the 46 pre-injury. And even with the Sharks' second-half implosion, they were able to maintain their possession numbers throughout the year meaning team effects aren't really relevant here. The injury clearly played a substantial role in slowing the big defenseman down.

Burns' offensive production was improved following the injury, which may have fooled some into thinking his game as a whole was superior, as he scored 17 points in his first 46 games of the season then 20 in the 35 contests after the All-Star break. However, eight of those 20 points came on the power play which roared to life in February after shooting blanks for the first half of the season. Defensemen like Burns who make their living on the man-advantage will usually see their point totals fluctuate based on the effectiveness of said power play unit, with little correlation to how well they're actually playing in other aspects of the game.

Free agent signing Brad Stuart isn't as good as Vlasic at this point of those players' respective careers but he's a definite step up over Murray. It's extremely heartening to think a healthy Burns, playing with a more reliable partner in Stuart, will be able to recapture the three-zone dominance he displayed in 2011. Hopefully we get a taste of that sooner rather than later.

With as many as three defensemen unavailable for the first week of the season, the Sharks will have some decisions to make. Worcester's Matts Irwin and Tennyson have certainly increased their chances of making the big club out of training camp but the team may be forced to wade into a shallow pool of free agents depending on the seriousness of some of these injuries.