Kraken Can Do Better Than Brent Burns

With the 2021 Expansion Draft just over two months away, Seattle Kraken and hockey fans alike are deep into speculation over which players will be selected to the NHL’s newest team. A wide variety of names have popped up, and they are rarely the same from prediction to prediction, but one player who has been tabbed quite frequently is longtime San Jose Sharks’ defenseman Brent Burns. (from ‘Mock expansion draft 6.0: For the Seattle Kraken, now it’s getting real,’ The Athletic, 04/27/2021)

When taking a quick glance at Burns’s resume, it’s not difficult to see why Kraken fans are enticed by the potential opportunity to select him. With six All-Star Game appearances, two First All-Star Team finishes, and a Norris Trophy in 2017, Burns will most likely be selected to the Hockey Hall of Fame once his career ends.

Brent Burns - Sharks
Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks, Oct. 9, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, despite all of these accolades, it is important to take context into account. Burns’s last All-Star appearance was in 2019, and his decline since has been steep. For the same reason that the Sharks are likely to leave Burns exposed, the Kraken should be sure to steer clear.

Declining Play

In the 2018-19 season, Burns was among the top defensemen in the league, finishing with 83 points in 82 games. His defensive play was lackluster, as it has been for most of his career, but his offense more than made up for it. In fact, Burns was the runner-up to Calgary Flames blueliner Mark Giordano for the Norris Trophy.

Conversely, the 2019-20 season was a very poor campaign for Burns. He fell to 45 points in 70 games – a solid total, no doubt, but nowhere near the heights of the previous season. Burns’s decline was reflective of his team’s. After losing in six games to the eventual champion St. Louis Blues in the 2019 Western Conference Final, the Sharks fell to 29th in the league in 2019-20, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

One might draw a correlation between these respective collapses and attribute Burns’s 2019-20 struggles to his lesser team. While this conclusion is fair when discussing point totals, it is easily debunked if we dive deeper into Burns’s underlying numbers. Like the previous season, the veteran defenseman struggled on defense – in fact, his defensive play actually deteriorated – but he was no longer aided by elite offensive ability. Burns’s Goals For per 60 (GF/60) and Expected Goals For per 60 (xGF/60) rates, courtesy of Evolving Hockey, dropped dramatically. On top of that, his Expected Wins Above Replacement (xWAR) dropped from 1.7 to 0.7. Although xWAR cannot completely eliminate all external factors, it is an “isolated” stat, so the Sharks’ decline has little to no effect on Burns’s output in that metric.

Brent Burns, NHL, San Jose Sharks
Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For a little bit of background, xWAR attempts to quantify how many wins a player adds to his team relative to a replacement-level player. xWAR’s objective is the same as WAR, but the former uses metrics like expected goals rather than actual goals. Since defensemen tend to have less of an effect on actual scoring than forwards do, it is better to evaluate them with xWAR.

Admittedly, 2020-21 has been something of a bounceback campaign for Burns. He has 27 points in 49 games, and has already doubled last year’s xWAR output, with 1.4. Although these are encouraging signs, he still struggles defensively, and his age must be taken into account. At 36 years old, Burns’s best days are almost certainly behind him. It is unlikely that he improves upon or even matches this season’s performance in the future. The Kraken, if they were to select him, would be receiving a shell of his former self.

Contract Situation

What may be the largest deterrent for Seattle is Burns’s albatross contract. Burns is currently in the fourth season of an eight-year, $64 million contract signed in 2016. Again, he is already 36 years old. It would be a huge mistake for Seattle to commit to paying a declining player $8 million per year until he is 40.

San Jose is currently in a partial rebuild, weighed down by an abundance of long-term contracts like Burns’. General manager Doug Wilson would love to eliminate Burns’s cap hit from a defense corps already paying a combined $18.5 million annually to Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic for the next five years. As a result, he may try to offer Seattle a side trade in order to incentivize taking on Brent Burns.

Barring an incredible offer from the Sharks, Seattle GM Ron Francis should hang up the phone immediately. As a new franchise, the Kraken should prioritize flexibility. Selecting Burns would accomplish the opposite.

Alternative Options

If Seattle does avoid Burns, the question remains: who can they pick instead? Pickings from the Sharks are slim, but there are some intriguing options likely to be available.

Certain players are locks to be protected. Karlsson and Vlasic have no-move clauses, and captain Logan Couture will stay put. Forwards Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, and defenseman Radim Simek are safe bets as well. That leaves two forward spots to be filled.

Contenders for the final two spots are most likely Dylan Gambrell, Ryan Donato, Alex True, Rudolfs Balcers, and Jonathan Dahlen. None of these five project to be particularly high-end NHL players, but all are serviceable bottom-sixers. It may even be premature to label them too harshly; as we saw with Vegas, even the most unlikely of players can blossom into stars.

Ryan Donato San Jose Sharks
Ryan Donato, San Jose Sharks (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Pending UFA forward Marcus Sorensen is another option. At 29, he probably won’t grow into much more than what he is, but he is a solid player who could help mentor the Kraken’s younger selections. As for goalies, prospect Josef Korenar probably receives the one protection slot, and Seattle should stay far away from veteran Martin Jones’ albatross contract.

Final Thoughts

Brent Burns has had a fantastic NHL career and should be a Hall of Famer when he retires. His accolades speak for themselves, and he has led the Sharks to tremendous heights, even as they have fallen short of the ultimate goal.

However, his best days are almost certainly behind him. Seattle has no need for a declining veteran with a bad contract on a team that probably won’t immediately contend. Brent Burns should not be the Kraken’s pick from the Sharks.

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