Brent Burns: Not all about the money?

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Usually the offseason is filled with ridiculous contracts, trades that send expensive contracts to new teams, and arbitration hearings. In some way, shape, or form, it seems like every single bit of news has to do with players trying to maximize their compensation or teams trying to get the best deal for players to fill out their roster for next season. It’s this offseason landscape that makes Brent Burns signing with the San Jose Sharks such an interesting story. Instead of playing out the last year of his contract and exploring unrestricted free agency next summer, he jumped at a chance to sign a long-term extension with the team that acquired him only a month ago.

Which brings us to the $30 million question: Why did he forgo the riches of free agency? As Burns tells it, he was just looking for a little security and the chance to win. Hey, can’t argue with either of those. Here’s what Burns had to say after signing his 5-year deal worth $28.8 million:

“To have a chance to start talking about signing the extension, it was really a no-brainer for us. We have a little bit of security for our family and I can concentrate on playing hockey, training and getting ready for the year.”

(snip)

“I don’t have to worry about (the contract) any more for the next six years and can concentrate on winning, being on a great team and being a great teammate. I think that’s important to me.”

Let’s get one thing straight: the man is getting paid almost $30 million to play hockey. It’s not like he’s a martyr and has taken a vow of poverty. But after taking a quick glance around the league at the contracts that were thrown at free agents this summer, it’s clear that Burns would have been able to make more money next season if he continued to produce in his first year with the Sharks.

Part of the risk for the Sharks when they traded Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle, and a first round pick for Burns was that he was only signed through the 2011-12 season. Upon signing the defenseman to the five-year extension, Sharks GM Doug Wilson admitted that the team could have lost Burns if he went on the open market in 2012.

“There was a level of risk at this. Supply and demand dictates that defensemen always are going to get their money and terms. But we know this is a guy who loves to play the game, wants to compete and wants to win. We thought we would be a good fit for him. From Day One, signing him was our ultimate goal. And for him to agree to this kind of contract, I can’t compliment Brent enough for him stepping up and being a great teammate.”

Since they’ve locked-up Burns until 2017, the Sharks are betting that the former Wild defenseman will be their cornerstone blueliner of the future. In the short-term, he’ll team up with Dan Boyle to give the Sharks one of the better one-two punches in the Western Conference from the back-end. He’ll join a group of otherwise underrated defensemen in Douglas Murray, Jason Demers, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic to form a formidable defensive corps for the next two seasons. That’s right: the Sharks have their five best defenseman already signed through the next two seasons.

The defense has admirable depth—but they were sorely lacking a top-pairing guy who could play on the power play, penalty kill, and 5-on-5 each and every night. Burns will be depended upon to do that for 82 games each year—all of which are merely a prelude to the playoffs in San Jose these days. His ability to thrive in his new home will be imperative for the Sharks to make it back to their third consecutive Conference Final (and beyond).  Ray Ratto of CSN Bay Area also understands Burns’ importance to his new team:

“Burns is obviously more important than any of the other acquisitions (Havlat, Michal Handzus), and will probably join with and eventually supplant Boyle as the defensive nucleus. It explains the size of the deal, but explaining Burns’ importance will require October, and November, and on and on.

Ultimately, you see, this is a deal for a player, not a deal for a signature, and in truth, Burns need to be the best defenseman the Sharks have ever had. Not because the money says so, but because the roster and the expectations and the resume say so.”

The next step for the former first round draft pick will be to improve upon his career bests from a year ago. In 80 games, Burns finished the season with 17 goals, 29 assists and 98 penalty minutes. His 17 goals were third in the NHL among defenseman and his 25:02 ice-time per game, placed him ninth among defenseman who played at least 70 games last season.

He’s shown in Minnesota to be a cornerstone defenseman—now he’ll look to prove that he can be “the man” for a team that’s annually expected to make a deep run into the playoffs.

Under Pressure: Cory Schneider

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This post is a part of Devils day at PHT…

During his first three years with the New Jersey Devils starting goalie Cory Schneider was one of the few bright spots on the team.

At times, he was the only bright spot.

He was one of the best goalies in the league and probably the only thing that kept them even reasonably competitive at times. He never had a save percentage lower than .920 in any of the three seasons and finished in the top-six two different times.

Had he played on a better team that could have given him more offensive support he probably would have been given more consideration for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie (and even without that offensive support he probably should have been given more consideration for it).

But this past season everything sort of fell apart for him, and by extension, the Devils.

He ended up finishing with a .908 save percentage, a mark that was not only the worst of his career, but also one of the worst in the NHL. For a Devils team that was dependent on its goaltending due to a lack of offense and a shaky defense his down year was pretty much the worst possible scenario and it helped result in one of the NHL’s worst records and a fifth consecutive non-playoff season.

Given Schneider’s track record in the NHL it is pretty clear that the 2016-17 season was a massive outlier when it comes to his performance. He has consistently been one of the best goalies in the league. But if the Devils are going to show any sign of meaningful improvement in 2017 they can not have a repeat performance from Schneider. Even with the additions of Marcus Johansson and the drafting of Nico Hischier with the No. 1 overall pick the Devils are still going to be a team that struggles to score goals (even if they improve), especially with Travis Zajac being sidelined for the next four-to-six months. He is also playing behind a defense that surrendered close to 32 shots on goal per game this past season and did not undergo any significant changes.

Given that expected workload and will almost certainly be another year without much goal support the Devils won’t have a chance if Schneider doesn’t return to his previous form.

It would also be beneficial for the Devils given that they still have $30 million committed to him over the next five seasons. He is their best player, their highest paid player, and their most important player. His overall body of work would seem to indicate he is capable of bouncing back, and he very likely will. If he doesn’t, it is going to be another long season for the Devils.

Looking to make the leap: Blake Speers

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This post is a part of Devils at PHT…

It already seems like a given that top pick Nico Hischier is going to have a spot on the New Jersey Devils’ roster this season, so let’s focus a little bit on another Devils prospect that will be looking to make a full-time leap to the NHL after spending almost all of the 2016-17 season still playing for his junior team.

That would be 2015 third-round pick Blake Speers, who was able to get a brief three-game look with the team early in the season and received some high praise from the coaching staff before being sent back to the Ontario Hockey League.

Speers impressed at the Devils’ development camp this summer and said he is on a mission to make the roster this season. There are certainly plenty of openings for a team that is looking to rebuild its offense. General manager Ray Shero has done a pretty decent job adding talent to the forward group over the past couple of seasons adding Taylor Hall, Zach Palmieri and  Marcus Johansson, then getting the good fortune of winning the draft lottery this offseason to add Hischier into the mix.

During the team’s development camp coach John Hynes talked about Speers and his relentless style of play and the way he “attacks everything he does.” Over the past three years he has been one of the most productive players for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, averaging more than a point per game in each season. If he can successfully make the jump to the NHL this season and translate his game to the next level it would be another great add for a Devils team that has been one of the worst offensive — and least exciting — teams in the league for several years now.

Shero has already added some potential impact players, and getting a No. 1 overall pick is the type of good fortune that can help turn a franchise around, but teams also need to hit on the occasional mid-round pick like Speers to build a complete, balanched team from top-to-bottom.

It’s New Jersey Devils day at PHT

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The 2011-12 New Jersey Devils surprised many by falling just two wins short of a Stanley Cup, ultimately falling to the Los Angeles Kings.

The franchise’s long run of success ended with that unexpectedly deep push. In finishing with 70 standings points last season, the Devils missed the playoffs for the fifth straight time and the sixth in seven tries. (The one time being, oddly, that 2012 Stanley Cup Final run.)

New Jersey didn’t finish with the worst record in 2016-17, yet they enjoyed something rare for the franchise: the first pick of a draft, selecting Switzerland’s Nico Hischier (pictured).

Landing the top pick wasn’t the only significant gain of the summer for New Jersey, either, as they also took advantage of Washington’s cap woes to land underrated forward Marcus Johansson. The Devils continue to be the team that trades might rebuild, as Johansson joins Taylor Hall, Cory Schneider, and Kyle Palmieri as significant pieces added thanks to often-deft swaps.

Despite those nice moves, the Devils still seem like they’re a long way from being truly dangerous again in the East.

A franchise that grew accustomed to All-Star (if not Hall-of-Fame) talent patrolling the blueline now looks pitiful in that area. You could make a solid argument that the Devils sport the worst defense corps in the NHL.

Schneider struggled last season, and with Travis Zajac slated to miss months, the overall picture doesn’t seem pretty.

That said, GM Ray Shero is putting together some intriguing building blocks to get this team back on track, particularly if the likes of Pavel Zacha take steps forward in their development. Here’s hoping that Schneider and especially draft lottery magnet Taylor Hall can be a part of a brighter era for the Devils, whenever that comes.

Get to know Hurricanes’ slew of young defensemen

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

There’s a strong chance that Carolina Hurricanes fans are strongly informed about this team’s wealth of promising – in some cases, already productive – young defensemen.

Carolina still has some questions in net, as Scott Darling must prove that his strong work as a backup in Chicago will translate into a productive career as the top guy with the Hurricanes. There’s also some questions at forward; while the group looks feisty, it’s unclear if they’ll be dominant or merely solid.

The defense, however, seems to be the group that could really become the envy of just about every NHL team outside of maybe Nashville.

Again, Hurricanes fans probably know this well. On the other hand, plenty of other hockey fans – maybe even hardcore ones – only know so much about these guys. In the event that the Hurricanes finally make good on their building hype, here’s a guide so that you can look like you knew about them first.

(Hey, you missed out on that sensation with your hipster music friends in high school, so here’s your chance.)

Note: This will focus mainly on their most prominent defensemen.

Justin Faulk – OK, if Hurricanes defensemen are indie bands, then Faulk is The Arcade Fire: most people know about him by now.

Still, at just 25, he’s in the thick of his prime, and at the very team-friendly clip of $4.833 million for three more seasons.

Since he really broke through in 2014-15, Faulk has generated 48 goals. That’s the sixth-highest total among NHL defensemen during that period of time, according to Hockey Reference. (Brent Burns is in a league of his own with 73, but he’s only eight behind Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who came in second with 56 goals.)

Faulk’s 23 power-play goals rank third among blueliners during that same stretch.

The American defenseman is a bit of a double-edged sword in that chances seem to go both ways when he’s on the ice, but his offensive production is probably worth it.

Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin – At the moment, it seems clear that the Hurricanes would be wise to make their current defensemen specialists.

While Faulk can be the offensive motor, it sure seems like Pesce and Slavin could be the guys doing the dirty work in their own end. Head coach Bill Peters can decide if he wants to have one be Faulk’s “defensive conscience” or if he wants to put them together, but either way, each blueliner puts up modest offensive numbers but limits chances against to a promising degree. And, hey, there’s a chance they might bump those scoring numbers up at least a bit as they mature.

The Hurricanes made big investments in contract extensions for Pesce, 22, and Slavin, 23, this summer.

Noah Hanifin – There are certain numbers that make you grimace with Hanifin, 20, especially if you grade him based on the fact that he was drafted fifth overall in 2015.

He certainly doesn’t work out too well from a fancy stats perspective:

Yikes, well at least he seemed to be a strong playmaker …

On the bright side, Canes Country’s Peter Dewar notes that Hanifin’s numbers dramatically improved once he was elevated to a spot with Pesce in Carolina’s top-four once Ron Hainsey was traded.

Hanifin scored almost as many points (14) in 26 games after Hainsey was traded than he did (15) in the 55 contests before that happened. His stats improved basically across the board, often in dramatic ways.

Perhaps Hanifin made the jump to the NHL a bit too quickly, but there’s still plenty of time for him to figure things out. Much like Klas Dahlbeck and Trevor van Riemsdyk, Hanifin enters a contract year as he’ll be an RFA after 2017-18. Dalbeck and TVR are both 26, so the similarities likely end there.

Haydn Fleury: Click here for plenty on Fleury, the subject of “Looking to make the leap.”

Jake Bean: Along with Fleury, Bean is one of the blueliners who could battle for minutes in the near future. Bean, 19, was the 13th pick of the 2016 NHL Draft. He’s been putting up impressive offensive numbers in the WHL, and even last year spoke with NHL.com about the logjam in the Carolina pipeline.

“In some ways it’s a logjam, but for me, I’m excited that I’m going to be surrounded by really talented prospects and players,” Bean said. “It’s an opportunity not everyone is going to get with every team.”

***

For all we know, amassing such an impressive war chest of defensive talent might one day allow GM Ron Francis to improve other areas of the team. It’s the sort of luxury few teams can relate to.

As is, though, this is one impressive group with its best days almost certainly coming down the road.