After their amazing 6-0 road trip in November, the San Jose Sharks have since lost four of their last five games. The good news for the Sharks is tonight’s game in Calgary will likely see the return of Logan Couture. Couture has missed the past 23 games after breaking his leg in practice. There is no question the return of No. 39 could be a major shot in the arm offensively. Unfortunately for the Sharks, their blue line is the bigger concern right now.
No. 1 defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic missed San Jose’s last game against the Tampa Bay Lightning and is not on this two-game road trip to Alberta. At the conclusion of Wednesday’s games, the Sharks will have played eight out of 28 games without a top-four defenseman. Paul Martin missed three games early in October and Justin Braun missed two games last week. San Jose has gone just 1-5 thus far in the six games played while missing a top-four defenseman. Clearly the Sharks will be looking to add a veteran defenseman prior to the trade deadline.
Sharks Need More From Burns at Evens
That said, there is more concern than just staying healthy and adding some help by the deadline. For as amazing as Brent Burns’ offensive numbers are, he’s leading the team in shots and is second in points, his defensive game and possession numbers are lacking. While most hockey followers understand that plus/minus isn’t always a great measure of performance, Burns being a team-worst minus-11 is very much worrisome. The rest of the Sharks regular blue liners in Vlasic, Braun, Martin, Brenden Dillon and Matt Tennyson are all minus-1 or better.
Burns’ current goals-for percentage at five-on-five is a well below average 39.4. His Corsi-for percentage is slightly above average at 51.6 but you would expect it to be higher with Burns being the league leader in shots among defenseman by a wide margin. Outsiders are wowed by Burns’ shot totals but the Sharks as a team aren’t exactly dominating puck possession when he is on the ice. Furthermore, the goal percentage being significantly worse than the the shooting percentage indicates more than just bad luck. It indicates poor defensive-zone play. Defensive studs like Vlasic and Braun consistently see their goals-for percentages well above their puck possession numbers because they are excellent at playing defense. Without the puck, they are extremely talented at blocking shots and forcing the opponents to bad angles with their elite stick positioning. Burns on the other hand still struggles with defensive zone coverage and preventing opposing forwards from getting to the prime scoring areas.
The case can be made that Burns’ PDO rating of 96.7 indicates that he has had some terrible luck. However, his PDO was also just 98.4 last season as a defenseman. And while PDO is the combination of team shooting and team save percentages, the individual player certainly has an effect on that number being higher or lower than the accepted 100 average. At what point do people see Burns’ PDO consistently being below 100 as bad luck or just where Burns’ poor defensive performance puts him?
Burns is a shooting machine this season but the Sharks’ goals-for per 60 minutes with Burns on the ice is just 1.63. Last year that number was 2.35. Simply put, a higher volume of shots hasn’t translated to anywhere near a more successful season. With these numbers, one can argue that the increase in shooting is actually doing more to hurt team performance than it has helped. All of these numbers spark an obvious question. How can the Sharks improve their even strength results with Burns on the ice?
Pair Burns with Vlasic
If the Sharks want to try and get better results with Burns on the ice at evens, perhaps the answer is to pair him with Vlasic when No. 44 returns from injury. For the majority of this season Burns has been paired with Martin. At the beginning of the year Burns and Martin looked to be a match made in heaven but over the last few weeks the defensive numbers have been on a significant decline. In fact, one could make the case that Martin is showing some signs of aging and that he is actually dragging Burns’ down just a tad. Burns’ goals-for and Corsi-for numbers are actually better without Martin than with him.
It may be a small sample size, as Burns has played just 50 of his 477 even strength minutes this season alongside Vlasic, but the numbers are far better. Burns with Vlasic has turned in a 2.36 goals per 60 minutes, 100% goals-for,and a 52.8% Corsi. While Martin is a solid defender, he clearly hasn’t been able to cover Burns’ mistakes as well as initially hoped. Last season Burns and Vlasic played 370 minutes together and weren’t great in terms of goals-for percentage at just 42.3 but they did combine for a 54.1% Corsi. Furthermore, their 2.43 GA/60 as a pair was far better than the 3.15 GA/60 when Burns skated with Brenden Dillon.
The point to be had is that defense pairs often change over the course of the season and Burns has yet to get an extended look playing with Vlasic. Outside of Vlasic-Braun and Martin-Burns, the pairs that make the second-most sense would be Vlasic-Burns and Martin-Braun. Thus far this season though we have yet to really see the Vlasic-Burns and Martin-Braun combinations given a chance. With San Jose’s recent struggles, this switch in pairs definitely seems worth a shot.