I recall sitting in a marketing meeting where we were trying to accurately assess ourselves and our competitors. After a participant suggested one of our competitor’s products might have an edge over our own, our company president asked a question that has resonated with me for over 25 years: “do we believe our own marketing BS or not?”
A New Day, An Old Script
The Peter DeBoer era for the San Jose Sharks has begun. I’ve taken quotes from interviews DeBoer did shortly after his introduction as the new head coach. The quotes are about Brent Burns. DeBoer coached Burns at the recent World Championships. DeBoer said: “he was the best defenseman in the tournament and he’s going to be a big part of our d-corp” and “he’s turning himself into a world-class defenseman”. Even former Sharks coach Todd McLellan was more circumspect in his praise for Burns.
For the past year, Shark fans have been subject to management, notably General Manager Doug Wilson, painting a bright picture about Burns’ prowess as a defenseman. So lets take off the teal-colored glasses and hit a few major facts from Burns play in the NHL from last season. I will focus on what happens at even strength (ES).
* Number of goals scored against the Sharks at ES (‘goals against’) with Burns on the ice: 78. That was 7th most among all NHL defenseman (no other Shark d-man was over 50).
* Number of minor penalties taken by Burns: 29. That was 12th most among NHL defensemen.
* Number of defensemen in the league that were on the ice for more ES goals than Burns AND put the team in short-handed situations more times than Burns: ZERO.
(Technical note: My preference is to use NHL.com statistics when possible. The NHL.com statistics I used for ‘goals against’ and ‘goals for’ were taken from their +/- tables. Those numbers use the NHL definitions associated with ‘+’ and with ‘-‘. The ‘goals against’ number includes both ‘ES goals against’ and ‘power play goals against’. The ‘goals for’ numbers include ‘ES goals for’ and ‘short-handed goals for’. ES goals account for about 96% the total. When I use the term ‘ES goals’ in this article, either in the context of ‘goals for’ or ‘goals against’, it is to simplify the text; those numbers also include goals scored by the team with fewer players on the ice.)
For those who indulged in the technical note, back to the core argument. At even strength (ES), we noted that other teams score a lot of goals with Burns on the ice. We also observed that Burns leaves the team short-handed a lot. The opening to the film Annie Hall comes to mind; Woody Allen describes two elderly women chatting. One says ‘the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’
OK, it is not that bad with Burns. You can’t be near the top of these ‘worst’ lists without considerable ice time and you can not get considerable ice time if you can’t play at a reasonable level. Burns makes both brilliant plays and mediocre plays in the same game, sometimes on the same shift. Burns was 23rd in ES ice time, significantly below his rankings in penalties and ‘goals against’. Also of note, the defenseman that drew the toughest assignments was Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Burns was rarely paired with Vlasic, meaning Burns typically wasn’t given the task of slowing down other team’s top offensive players. It is all more than enough to make the core point: Burns is a liability on defense at ES.
World-Class Means What?
Anyone can say ‘world class defenseman’, but the coach has to know if he’s telling the truth or trying to sell something to his audience. Truth needs to be reflected in his actions. The reason the Burns situation gets so much attention is because it is so fundamental. It goes the very core of coaching: put your players in situations that give them and the team the best chance to succeed.
A good showing at the World Championship is not how you rationalize the decision on where to play Burns. Nor is an All-Star nod. The earlier numbers in this article are not misleading. There are 82 games of recent evidence. Burns is problematic on defense as a defenseman at ES.
There is more to this story and I’m sure readers have noted that I have not yet included what Burns is known for, his offensive skills. Perhaps surprisingly, even on offense, Burns did not drive an unusual amount of ES scoring. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, a defensive defenseman if there ever was one, was on the ice for 59 goals at ES compared to 69 for Burns. Burns was on the ice for 17% more goals than Vlasic at ES. But Burns played 19% more ES minutes than Vlasic (who missed 12 games with injuries). Normalized for time-on-ice, the Sharks scored at the essentially the same rate with Burns on the ice as they did with Vlasic. Matt Irwin had ES offensive numbers that, when normalized for minutes played, were similar to Burns. Irwin was on the ice for 39 ES goals. Burns 69 figure is 77% more than Irwin’s 39. But Burns had 86% more ES ice time compared to Irwin. So while Burns is capable of scoring from the blue line, overall, the team’s ES scoring rate was essentially the same with Irwin or Vlasic on the ice. It was also similar with Justin Braun. Of the defensemen who played in at least half the games, the team’s ES scoring rate was only noticeably lower with Scott Hannan and Brenden Dillon on the ice.
The reality is simple. Burns didn’t drive an unusual amount of ES offense. He was a liability on defense at ES.
There is a positive story with Burns on defense and it is important one. He was on the ice for 43 power play goals, 2nd best among defensemen. The PP unit featured 5 Sharks who were on the ice for 40 or more goals. Those 43 power play goals Burns was on the ice for represent a whopping 19% of the team’s total. Should Burns play the point on the power play? Yes! Pick an adjective: elite, world-class, etc. On the power play, Burns lived up to all of it.
The issue is whether Burns would be better as a winger at ES. Running the analogous numbers for Burns as a winger from the prior season would tell a story of unmitigated success (ES team scoring and goals allowed, normalized for minutes played). As a winger, Burns’ did benefit from outstanding linemates and they formed one of the league’s top 5 lines, with all 3 forwards finishing the season +20 or better.
Brent Burns is a remarkable athlete. His skill set lends himself to the hybrid role of playing the point on the power play and playing forward at ES. He has proven he is ‘world class’ in both those roles. Let me repeat that word: PROVEN. Normalize Burns numbers as a forward at ES in San Jose to 82 games (he’s played 93 to date) and add in his power play production from the point this past season and you get what a full season of Burns in that hybrid role would look like: 31 goals, 41 assists and a +28. Jonathan Toews, in his highest point total season (2010-11), went for 32G 44A and was +25.
A few weeks back, I put a stake in the ground in an earlier article, saying that the new coach needed to control the decision on where Burns plays. It is possible Peter DeBoer has this authority, but it sure feels like this ‘choice’ has GM Doug Wilson’s fingerprints all over it.
A First Impression for the Third Time
Time will tell if DeBoer can manage to turn things around in San Jose. His NHL history is complicated. Much of it can be summed up as mediocre results with mediocre teams in mediocre situations (some describe certain situations as less than mediocre). DeBoer’s teams have been a point per game or less 5 times in 7 years and missed the postseason 6 times out of 7. In both Florida and New Jersey, his first season was his best. The season that stands out was his first year in New Jersey, where he led a very veteran team to a 102 point season and made it to the Cup finals. The Sharks do not resemble that, the clearly stated roadmap centers around rebuilding. If there is a note of concern, it is that relatively few young players seemed to develop in the NHL under DeBoer. If there is something to mitigate that concern, it is that he has received high marks for his Ontario Hockey League work, including coaching several players that have had NHL success. Plenty of coaches have gone through challenging times early on in their NHL career prior to seeing their own great success. DeBoer will get a fair chance to make his mark, he deserves nothing less.
For DeBoer to start with what comes off as a marketing line about Burns on day 1 is discouraging and problematic. His take on Burns is not credible. There is nothing more fundamental to being a successful head coach than to put players in their best position to succeed. DeBoer has already committed to not do that. He is committing this team to underperform, at least in the near term. This is not a good start. To paraphrase my former company president: ‘does DeBoer believe his own BS’? Time will tell. The answer to that question will have a lot to do with whether he fails or succeeds in San Jose.