SAN JOSE- It is certainly no surprise that the NHL has become an “any given night” type league. Take a quick glance through all 30 rosters and you’ll see every team can boast at least some high end talent at the forward position.
Even teams with limited firepower have capable top line forwards. In other words, no team should be taken lightly, especially if put frequently on the power play. Every team can send out a rather skillful group of five skaters.
However, teams with deeper talent pools like Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Jose, Anaheim, Pittsburgh, and Boston are going to be higher in the standings. These seven clubs are (more or less) the top contenders in hockey right now.
If I were a betting man, I’d go as high as 75% chance that one of these seven clubs skates away with the Stanley Cup this coming June. While any team can beat any opponent on any given night, it will be extremely difficult for any of the remaining 23 clubs to take out any of these seven in a best-of-seven series.
Now you can call me a homer if you wish, but of the seven, the team I believe to have the best shot is San Jose. While all the top clubs are deep with elite level talent, there is not a single forward duo in the league that is harder to handle than Joe Thornton and Brent Burns.
When you combine their elite level skill— Joe Thornton being one of the best playmakers in hockey and Burns scoring at higher rate five on five last year than any other forward not named Sidney Crosby (can’t repeat that enough)— with their sheer physical prowess, no other forward pair can compare.
Not only can these two go toe-to-toe talent wise with any other forwards in the league, but they do so with unmatched size. Thornton at 6’4″ and Burns at 6’5″ both weigh in anywhere between 220 and 230 pounds and are simply a load to handle.
While other elite teams also have some rather large top forwards, the Kings’ Anze Kopitar (6’3″, 225), the Blue’s David Backes at (6’3″, 221), the Ducks’ Ryan Getzlaf (6’4″ 221), and the Bruins’ Milan Lucic (6’3″, 235) none of them play with an equally talented big body.
The Kings’ Jeff Carter is 6’4″, 212, but rarely plays with Kopitar nor is he really known for his size, and while Corey Perry (6’3″, 212) plays with Getzlaf, he also really isn’t known for his size.
Burns and Thornton are both known for their elite skill as well as their ability to shield pucks with two of the longest stick reaches in the game at the forward position. The amount of space the two can account for in the dirty areas down low in the offensive zone is unparalleled. While the Kings managed somehow to squeak by the Sharks in seven games last playoffs, they simply had no answer for Thornton and Burns.
“They’re big, strong bodies” commented Kings center Anze Kopitar. “It’s tough to contain them when they have the puck.”
“They’re both big guys” added Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle. “It’s enough to deal with one guy on a line like that but when you have two and even Tomas [Hertl] isn’t a small guy either, it’s a pretty big line.”
Burns, who recently returned after missing a month due to facial injuries, is once again scoring at high clip at even strength. He is second only behind the Dallas Stars’ Jamie Benn in five on five scoring averaging 3.86 points per 60 minutes of ice time. Only one of Burns’ 10 points has come on the man advantage.
After Wednesday’s shootout victory over the Kings, the Sharks are now 10-0-1 on the season with Burns in the lineup (all of which have seen Burns on Thornton’s right side).
The Sharks are as deep as any of the other aforementioned contenders and their unique Burns-Thornton combination has simply been unstoppable since the stretch drive of last season.
Fitting of a man who can say so much with so few words, Kings head coach Darryl Sutter put it best when asked about the difficulty defending San Jose’s massive duo.
“It’s not easy, [they're] big guys that can hang onto the puck.”
As always, for more on the Sharks follow Andrew on twitter: @ViewFromBensch