Demise of the Defense
The San Jose Sharks had a number of problems that led to the 2014-15 season ending their decade long playoff streak. By taking Brent Burns away from Joe Thornton’s wing, the Sharks suffered self-inflicted problems at both ends. Removing Burns from forward created a huge hole in the top-six that GM Doug Wilson elected not to fill and it hurt San Jose’s back end. It is appalling that some national media have dared to suggest Burns should have received some Norris consideration. While he did score 60 points from the blue-line, he was horrendous in his own zone all season long. After finishing a plus-26 in 2013-14 as a forward, Burns wound up minus-9 this season as a defenseman. The decision to move Burns back to defense was a clear cut mistake, one that so far Wilson is too stubborn to admit. Perhaps he will admit the mistake during his locker room clean out interview on Wednesday, but don’t count on it.
Burns wasn’t the only defenseman who struggled though. Jason Demers couldn’t replicate his 2013-14 performance and was traded away for fellow defenseman Brenden Dillon in November. While Dillon showed promise, he had a number of hiccups adjusting to his new environment. Similarly, while rookie Mirco Mueller showed flashes of why he was a first round pick in 2013, he mostly struggled as a rookie. There was also a down year from Justin Braun on the blue-line after two straight years of awesome performances from No. 61. Matt Irwin also under-performed in the first half of the season and veteran Scott Hannan ran out of gas as the season wore on. Outside of top dog Marc-Edouard Vlasic, every Sharks defenseman had significant problems this season. San Jose’s even strength scoring differential fell from sixth in 2013-14 to 24th in 2014-15.
Don’t Blame Boyle or Stuart Moves
That said, letting veteran Dan Boyle walk in free agency was still the smart move. With his worst season in teal last year, signing Boyle to the term he wanted probably wouldn’t of been worth it. He has had a strong year in the plus/minus department for the Rangers but he hasn’t lived up to the contract and role they had hoped for him in New York. Furthermore, trading away defenseman Brad Stuart was also a smart move because Stuart was clearly starting to decline last season. His first year back in teal in 2012-13 was solid but he regressed considerably a year ago and hasn’t been good with Colorado this season. It is not as if the Sharks were wrong to let these two players get away, it is simply that they did a pis poor job replacing them. Burns will never be the type of defenseman Boyle was in his prime. Boyle actually was a smart defenseman in his own zone, something Burns simply isn’t.
Furthermore, Mueller was clearly not ready to take over minutes from a guy like Stuart. The Sharks needed to keep Burns up at forward and should have brought in someone like Andrej Sekera, Jeff Petry, Zybnek Michalek, James Wisniewski, or Anton Stralman, all of whom were either signed or traded in the past 10 months. It was crystal clear the Sharks needed to keep Burns at forward and acquire an established top-4 defenseman still in his prime. Burns is not a good defenseman in his own zone and is a liability back there, just look at this goal below, he looks absolutely lost chasing the puck and inexplicably leaves his man wide open. That is a simple two on two rush that he completely botches as if he has never played defense in his life (he actually was trained growing up as a forward).
These types of misreads were far too frequent from Burns this season. Of course it didn’t help that the usual dominant Braun also had a few too many defensive hiccups this year. Braun however is clearly capable of bouncing back by virtue of playing the position he was born to play. Burns was born to play forward, you can just see it in the way he plays the game. Wilson’s blinders to this fact is hurting the Sharks and it is incredibly difficult to explain why he can’t see what everyone else can.
Wilson Blew It
Towards the end of the season Burns was playing third pair minutes. At forward he was always a top line winger. He is making nearly $6 million dollars per season. That is a normal cost for a top line forward, that is not the money you pay for a defenseman whom you have to shelter away from the other team’s top forwards. It is laughable that the Sharks were icing Burns as a defenseman against Pittsburgh and not playing him against either the Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Makin line. And that isn’t coach Todd McLellan’s fault. He was doing what he was forced to do and playing Burns as a defenseman. But he wants to win and realizes that Burns isn’t good enough to defend against those two lines. He is a natural forward, and that is where he proved he belonged for a year and half where he lit up the NHL and was a positive player at even strength.
San Jose’s defense problems started with the Burns move and trickled down to Braun’s off year, the Demers regression, Dillon’s tough adjustment task, and Mueller being asked to do too much as a 19-year-old rookie. This poorly constructed blue-line is one of the main reasons the Sharks fell to the floor of the Pacific this season. Finishing above only two of the other six teams in the division.