Replacing Burns at Forward: Free Agent Splash?

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With the San Jose Sharks announcing the return of Brent Burns back to defense this offseason, it leaves Team Teal with a wookie sized hole at right wing in the top six. So how will they fill it? Regardless of the course of action, replacing Burns will be more than just tough, it will be nearly impossible. In the year and change he spent at forward, Burns absolutely dominated opponents possession wise alongside Joe Thornton.

The Sharks have two primary options when it comes to replacing Burns. First, they can elect to shift Pavelski into Burns’ vacated spot and find a new third line center. However, this probably (read definitely) isn’t the wisest move since the Sharks have been far more successful in both the regular season and playoffs with Pavelski in the middle. Furthermore, replacing Pavelski with an equivalent third line center is an even more impossible task.

The second option is to leave Pavelski in the 3-hole behind Thornton and Logan Couture and acquire a right winger in some fashion. Now the Sharks have never in their history signed a big name player in their prime as an unrestricted free agent (always has been via promotion, position change or by trade). But for fans and those inside the organization calling for big change, making the first signing of this caliber would certainly be just that.

Now if the Sharks choose to go with Pavelski to replace Burns at right wing, then there is really only one scheduled to be UFA center that would qualify as the organization’s first big UFA signing. That would be none other than current Colorado Avalanche star Paul Stastny.

The Avalanche have plenty of cap room but according to The Denver Posts’ Adrian Dater, Stastny was “lukewarm” about staying in Colorado prior to 2013-14 given the team’s lack of success. Given their strong showing this year, one may think that would mean Stastny will choose to return. However, given their first round upset loss, it is entirely possible Stastny prefers to play for a more established contender.

If there is one UFA out there that the Sharks would be wise to get in a bidding war for, it would be the best center on the market. As the saying goes, you can never have too many centers. Stastny is still relatively young at 28-years-old and is the lone UFA center the Sharks could sign that would make moving Pavelski to the wing a smart move.

Dater also notes in his column that this past season, one which saw Stastny score 60 points, was widely considered his best “all around” season. As for the Sharks, going from Pavelski to Stastny at third line center wouldn’t be a drop off at all. All other UFA centers however would be a considerable drop-off. If the Sharks were to sign any UFA forward to a $7.0 million per yer contract, Stastny, not Tomas Vanek, nor Ryan Callahan, would be the best bet. The Sharks would have Thornton, Couture, Stastny down the middle and if either were to be injured, they could just move Pavelski back to center, or even last year’s rookie phenom Tomas Hertl could slide to the center position.

Speaking of Callahan, the former Rangers captain is a fan favorite throughout North America. He’s a star player who works his tail off each and every shift. However, he has not once scored over 60 points, and only once gone over 50. He is coming off a down year which saw him traded away from New York (who has reached the Stanley Cup final without him) and finish with only 17 goals and 36 points in 65 games. The 29-year-old right wing will certainly make at least $6.0 million annually somewhere if he wants it, but that is a tad pricey for someone coming off a down year.

With that said, the Sharks organization seems to think they have a culture issue in the dressing room. They believe they need to get mentally and physically tougher, and Callahan is one of the most hard-nosed goal scorers in the league. Plus, if you pot him alongside Joe Thornton, it would be shocking if he didn’t score at least 25 goals over a healthy season.

While Sharks GM Doug Wilson has been quoted as saying his team likely won’t be active in the free agent market, Wilson has always been one who keeps things close to the vest. None of his big moves in the past (all trades) were foreshadowed. Trades for Thornton, Dan Boyle, Dany Heatley, and Burns were never mentioned in rumors prior to their execution. Therefore, if Wilson plans to be more active than usual in the free agent market, he almost certainly wouldn’t make it public knowledge. And as mentioned earlier, making a free agent splash would be big change, and change is something Wilson has been preaching ever since San Jose’s embarrassing finish to the season.

The problem the Sharks have is that this is not the year for signing a big UFA, there just aren’t many top guys available. And a big reason why moving Burns back to defense is a mistake is because replacing his scoring and fore-checking presence at right wing is a monumental task. Burns was amongst the elite of the elite at even strength scoring. Plus the Sharks already have Justin Braun and Jason Demers as right handed shooters for the top-4 defense. Essentially the Sharks have created a Chewy-sized hole in their lineup to try and fix an ewok sized issue. Finding a defenseman capable of playing on a second pairing is significantly easier than it is to find a top line goal scorer that ranks amongst guys like Toews, Stamkos, Perry, Benn at five aside scoring.

I certainly wouldn’t put it past Wilson to finally make a big UFA splash. However, given the low supply, it isn’t likely for this to be the offseason where he finally inks his big fish.

Therefore, with Burns back on the blue-line, unless Wilson can pull out another successful big trade (seems unlikely since he says he’s not going to move young players or 1st round draft picks), chances are the Sharks won’t be as good offensively come next season. And Sharks fans should be disappointed if the 2014-15 team takes what would be an unnecessary step back. Prior to this first round disappointment, the Sharks had been steadily getting better for the majority of the last six years.

Drastic change is not needed.

With the exception of 2011-12, each year since the 2008-09 flame-out against Anaheim, the Sharks have clearly improved their roster for the better. 2010 better than 2009, 2011 better than 2010, 2013 better than 2012, 2014 better than 2013. And in three out of five years, the playoff performances have been better than the year prior with the improved tweaks to the roster.

Moving Burns back to defense was the first overreaction and replacing him at forward is going to be nearly impossible. Cheers to hoping cooler heads will prevail in the Sharks offices because shipping out fantastic players on great value contracts like Thornton or Marleau in response to a single playoff series loss would be as big of an overreaction as there comes.

 

As always for more on the Sharks follow Andrew on Twitter: @ViewFromBensch

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