November 22 2016 11:00AM
Future Free Agents is a semi-regular feature on NHLNumbers profiling players from 2017's potential free agency class.
Brent Burns is one of the NHL's elite defencemen, with the skill and presence to completely control the game when he's on the ice. If the San Jose Sharks somehow allow him to hit the open market this summer, Burns is the kind of player who can singlehandedly make another team quite a bit better.
How good is he?
Very. Brent Burns is very good.
Burns is one of those talents, along with names like Erik Karlsson and P.K. Subban, who have challenged us to completely re-think the way we understand defenceman.
Burns is basically San Jose’s rover when he’s on the ice. He jumps up on the rush or slides into the play in the offensive zone to essentially give the Sharks another forward when necessary, but also boasts the physical skill and awareness to move back on defence when the play deteriorates in order to not feed the other team a prime rush or scoring chance in return.
Brent Burns is a bad, bad man. pic.twitter.com/WwBjppqJDx— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) November 16, 2016
He’s one of those players where you can watch him and confidently say that you don’t really need to take a look at his statistics because his impact on the game is so overwhelmingly noticeable. But just for fun, let’s dig into the numbers anyway.
Over the past three seasons, only one defenceman has produced more offensively than Burns. That’s Erik Karlsson, but it’s close. Burns, in that span, has played 181 games, scoring 50 goals and collecting 99 assists, while Karlsson has 40 goals and 122 assists in the same amount of games. But when you change the search to sort by shots, nobody comes close. Burns leads all defencemen by a landslide with 678 shots, or 3.73 shots per game, or, going one step further, 1010 even strength shot attempts.
Speaking of shot attempts, only three defencemen over the past three seasons (John Klingberg, Jake Muzzin, and Alex Goligoski) have been on the ice for more Corsi For events per hour than Burns. That said, he does give up a little bit of that on defence, as he ranks in the middle of the pack in terms of Corsi Against per hour. Overall, during that same span, Burns ranks 22nd in the league among defencemen with a 53.4 Corsi For percentage.
What we have here is not only a player who drives possession and offence by doing the right thing on the ice, but a player who generates individual shot attempts. Whether it be through finding space in the offensive zone to be fed a pass, joining a rush and becoming a primary scoring target, or driving through the other team completely on his own, Brent Burns generates shot attempts, which, as we know, is a major contributing factor to teams winning games.
How much will he cost?
Let’s start with a point of reference. I would use Karlsson or Subban who are in the same category in terms of production over the past few seasons as Burns, but they don’t work well in this context because they were signed when they were younger and didn’t have complete free agency.
Lucky for us, we have a damn near perfect comparable in Dustin Byfuglien, who signed a new long-term deal with the Jets last February. Relatively speaking, Byfuglien and Burns are pretty similar players. They’re the same age, both produce at an elite level offensively, and they don’t really fit your idea of a typical defenceman.
Last season, the Jets inked Byfuglien to a five-year contract extension worth $38 million, or $7.6 million annually. This is where you start with Brent Burns. As mentioned above, only Karlsson has racked up more points than Burns has. That means, if a player like Byfuglien, who’s the same age, has similar underlying numbers, plays the same style of game, warrants $7.6 million annually, Burns, who’s produced significantly more over the past few seasons, can easily command more.
There’s a million other factors that’ll go into Brent Burns’ next contract, and it obviously isn’t as cut and dry as, “he’s produced more than this similar guy who got this contract last year!” But it’s a good starting point nonetheless.
Can San Jose afford it?
For the sake of working this out, let’s shoot high and say Burns asks for a slightly bigger contract than Byfuglien did but over the same term. $40 million over five years, or $8 million annually. It would be the second highest cap hit in the league among defencemen, behind only Subban, and just ahead of Victor Hedman, Shea Weber, and Byfuglien.
The Sharks have a handful of players in need of new deals this summer. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are both hitting the free agent market, while Melker Karlsson, Joonas Donskoi, and Chris Tierney among others need new RFA deals.
All told, the Sharks have roughly $45 million committed to six forwards, five defenceman, and two goalies into next season. So long as Western Civilization doesn’t collapse, that’ll leave the Sharks with about $30 million to deal with Burns, Thornton, Marleau, and the rest of their roster, depending on where the 2017-18 salary cap ceiling is set.
If he hits the open market…
It would be difficult to imagine Brent Burns making it all the way to free agency. The Sharks certainly have the cap space to fit him in long-term, the team is good right now and more than likely will be for some time, and there isn’t anything to suggest Burns doesn’t enjoy playing and living in San Jose.
If he does make it to July 1 without a contract in place, though, I imagine *insert team here* would definitely be interested. And by that I mean pretty much everybody. How often do top-pairing defencemen, especially ones who produce at an elite level, hit the open market? Never. These are guys you either trade for or draft and develop yourself. You can take out teams in cap hell (like Chicago, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay), the internal-budget teams (like Anaheim, Ottawa, Winnipeg), and still have a massive list of teams who would want to sign Brent Burns.
Take Edmonton, for example. They so badly need good, right-handed defencemen they traded away Taylor Hall to get one, and even after that, they still have a massive hole on their blue line and need someone who can quarterback their power play. And Toronto, too, they’ve got loads of excellent young forwards, and I’m sure they’d like to avoid being in a situation where they need to move one of them to flesh out their thin blue line.
Thoughts on Burns' eight-year, $64 million contract extension with the Sharks
Well, so much for all of that! This summer's best defenceman is officially off the market six months before teams would have even had an opportunity to be told "no".
The Sharks and Burns agreed today on a contract that'll keep the stud defenceman in San Jose for eight more seasons with an annual cap hit of $8 million. The deal, as reported on Twitter by Chris Johnson, is heavily front-loaded and features roughly half of the cash he's being paid in the form of a signing bonus.
What to make of this deal? The first thing that screams out is the fact that the Sharks are going to be on the hook for a 40-year-old defenceman with an $8 million cap hit by the end of this contract.
If this team is going to win, it's going to be in the next few years when Brent Burns is earning his $8 million cap hit. It isn't prudent to make all of your decisions for the here and now, obviously. But the Sharks are a team built to win right now. And if Brent Burns walked in the summer, their long-term cap outlook would look much nicer, sure, but they would also be left with a team loaded with aging, expensive players that aren't good enough to win. Thornton and Marleau are both 36 and certainly don't have much left to give. Joel Ward and Paul Martin are only one year younger. Even their younger core of key players, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Joe Pavelski are into their 30s.
Don't get me wrong, this contract is going to look bad in a few years. Earlier in the article I suggested Byfuglien as a comparable largely because his five-year term made a lot of sense for his age and style of play, which, like Burns, is likely going to result in him not being effective into his mid-to-late 30s. But we have to understand where the Sharks are and what letting Burns go would ultimately mean for their franchise. They were damn close last season, and it's hard to sell to the fans that they're chopping it down and letting it go.
Also, like I mentioned earlier, the deal is heavily front-loaded. So long as Burns doesn't become an albatross in the next year or two, the majority of the cash will already have been paid. And like we've seen in the past, most recently with Dave Bolland and Pavel Datsyuk this summer, poor teams will take on a big cap hit with a smaller true salary attached to it in order to work around reaching the salary cap floor.
Besides, the CBA is set to expire in a few more years. You know what that means, right? Compliance buyouts! Get out of jail free cards!