On Wednesday, the Carolina Hurricanes acquired defenseman Brent Burns along with Lane Pederson for Steven Lorentz, prospect Eetu Makiniemi and a third round draft pick. The draft pick will be the lower of the Hurricanes’ pick and the one that they acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers in the Tony DeAngelo trade.
In terms of what was given and what was gained, I think the trade is a decent one (pending what role Burns successfully fills per below). In getting San Jose to keep 1/3 of Burns’ salary making his cap hit only $5.36 million for the next three years, that is a reasonable cap hit IF he slots into the top 4. Lane Pederson is a 24-year old fringe AHL/NHL player who has some NHL experience but is not a huge addition to the deal.
In terms of what was given up, Steven Lorentz is a tremendous person and a great story as a rare seventh-round pick who made it to the NHL and will be missed by the team and fan base. But in terms of building the roster, he is replaceable. When I reviewed the team’s free agents awhile back, my thoughts were that ideally the team would like to get something more out of this depth slot. That could be a penalty killer or possibly a bit more snarl and physicality. The best get for San Jose in this deal is goalie prospect Eetu Makiniemi. Since being drafted in the 4th round of the 2017 NHL Draft, he has made good step-wise progress as a prospect. In 14 games in his first season in the AHL, he registered as solid .922 save percentage and 2.06 goals against average. The only rap on him has been that he has already had his development interrupted multiple times by injuries. The bigger thing from the Hurricanes standpoint is that Pyotr Kochetkov figures to be the team’s heir apparent in net. And finally a third round draft pick has value but only modestly so compared to a first or second round pick. The package was a decent one given up, but mostly that reflects the fact that the Sharks are picking up $2.6 million of salary for the three years remaining on the contract.
As I said on Twitter shortly after the deal was announced, one nice side benefit of the trade is the acquisition of a fun guy and personality, especially in a league that for whatever reason seems to tamp that down.
As a player, Brent Burns in his prime regularly made a case for being the best offensive defenseman in the NHL. He scored 27 and 29 goals respectively in 2015-16 and 2016-17 respectively and won the Norris Trophy for the 2016-17 season. For the 2021-22 season, Burns posted a very respectable 54 points in 82 games. He still brings a big point shot on the power play and equally significantly a good ability to manage a power play and distribute the puck from the top position of the umbrella. In this regard, I think he replaces and could even prove to be a notch better than Tony DeAngelo offensively.
But unless the Hurricanes surprise with another higher-end addition to the blue line (which is highly unlikely), Burns figures to slot next to Jaccob Slavin in the top 4. The question then becomes whether he can be good enough or better defensively in the Canes aggressive, fast-paced system and playing most of his minutes against other teams’ top scoring lines.
This is where I have questions.
Even in his prime, Burns was a player who excelled offensively but could be a bit of a rover or river boat gambler defensively a bit like the loose version of Dougie Hamilton when he was not playing well.
And at 37 years old, mobility could be an issue. I think people underestimate the mobility and skating ability needed to play in an aggressive Canes system that needs defenseman to play all the way down the face-off circle pinching from the blue line, wants them to quickly be a third or fourth on the rush and also have the ability to quickly reverse course and get back defensively in either scenario. Less mobile players have struggled in this system. Jani Hakanpaa, Ian Cole, Brendan Smith and others have struggled at times trying to cover the ice quickly enough in both directions. From watching a decent amount of Sharks games last season (and not just going off his age), my concern is that Burns could struggle in this regard. The Canes scouts obviously watch a lot more video than I do, so hopefully they see it differently and I am wrong.
How this sorts out, puts Burns in two completely different places. If the combination of veteran smarts and playing alongside Jaccob Slavin make Burns a steady and solid top 4 defenseman on the defensive side of the puck, then his $5.36 million cap hit becomes a very reasonable cost for a #4 defenseman who brings a lot offensively. If instead, Burns proves unable to slot as a defensively capable top 4 defenseman, then he starts to look like the DeAngelo as a great offensive #5 defenseman who is overslotted in the top 4 and therefore too expensive at his salary. DeAngelo had the mobility and skating needed to play in the top 4, but just was too error prone with only a ‘go’ button and issues sorting things out situationally. Burns is at a disadvantage in that he lacks the mobility, so the hope is that he is better in terms of sorting things out/decision-making.
tldr…If Burns can play well enough defensively in a top 4 slot, he is a great addition for his price. If he cannot, the Canes still have a potentially playoff Achilles’ heel hole in the top 4 and spent the money that might have filled it to add a player who is really more of an offense-leaning third pairing defenseman.
A challenging market
One thing to consider in this move is the ‘pick your poison’ market for defenseman this off-season. The available options were limited and mostly came with significant risk. I really like John Klingberg for trying to win a Cup in the next two years, but the rumblings so far at least are that at 30 years old he wants a long-term deal for maximum dollars (something like $7 million for seven years). That is very high on the risk spectrum. Jeff Petry is another player supposedly available but he is coming off a up and down season where the down was very bad and is due $6.25 million per year for three more years. Unless Jakob Chychrun who I have pounded the table for is actually available at some reasonable trade cost, the Canes were going to have to take some sizable risk be it age, contract, both of those or going with very unproven players in important roles.
Though I just picked apart the Brent Burns option above, it is not like I can point to any other options that the Canes might have passed on that are significantly better or less risky.
The blue line so far
With Burns addition, I figure the Hurricanes slot like this so far:
Brady Skjei / Brett Pesce — I hate not being able to use Jaccob Slavin in a #1 role, but as was the case in 2021-22 leveraging Skjei and Pesce’s chemistry and tasking Slavin with making the second pairing work seems like the best way.
Jaccob Slavin / Brent Burns — Burns at least gets first try next to Slavin in the second pairing. If that works, then the blue line in total looks promising.
Jake Gardiner / Jalen Chatfield or Ethan Bear — I am bit surprised that the Canes have not moved on from Bear (which could still happen) but not adding a sure thing top 4 defenseman maybe makes it worthwhile to at least have as many options as possible for plan B or C. Bear was acquired with the hope that he could slot next to Slavin at #4, so if in a pinch maybe he gets a fresh start and a new audition there.
If the Hurricanes find an opportunity add a higher-end forward or two and need the salary cap budget, Gardiner will likely be traded with compensation to take his salary cap hit. But if the Canes are unable to use his salary cap to start the season, there is no harm in keeping him for the time being. He could be a second power play unit point man. A subtle but maybe significant upside there is that if Slavin comes off the power play, he can take a couple more shifts at even strength. And if Gardiner does not work out, it should be reasonably easy to either include him directly in a trade deadline deal or give up modest futures then when the remaining cost on his deal is roughly $1.5 million.
Bigger picture and the forwards
EDIT: Written before trade for Max Pacioretty
The picture is much murkier at forward. On Wednesday, Vincent Trocheck signed with the Rangers and Max Domi with the Blackhawks. Despite the fans on Twitter clamoring increasingly loudly for his return, there does not seem to be any movement on the bring back Nino Niederreiter front. Right now, the team has only eight forwards under contract. If you count Martin Necas who is a restricted free agent and Jack Drury who has a good chance to win an NHL roster spot in training camp, the Canes still need two forwards (and also a 13th who could be a 2021-22 AHLer with NHL experience). Just needing two forwards sounds reasonable. But trying to replace Trocheck and Niederreiter in a way that makes the team better (not just status quo) seems difficult.
But I am not a fan of day 1 free agency despair. The time to evaluate the team is when it is completed. Perspective would change dramatically if the Canes surprise by adding one of the big names still outstanding like Nazem Kadri or Johnny Gaudreau (likely but not impossible) or if they swing a trade for a bona fide second line center.
My 2 cents / Where I land
I am not a huge fan of the deal simply because I am skeptical that Brent Burns will be enough better than last year defensively, and come playoff time, I put a high priority on having an air tight top 4 as a starting point. That said, if I assume Chychrun was not really an available option, I struggle to find anything else that I like much better.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Putting other options to the side, what are your thoughts on Brent Burns?
2) Given the short and risky set of options available, do you see anything that you like better?
3) Looking forward to what’s next, what are your thoughts on finishing work on the forward lines?