According to a CSN Bay Area report from Kevin Kurz Friday, February 8, after San Jose Sharks practice, Brent Burns was a full participant. He was paired with Brad Stuart, who was asked about his expectations for his new defense partner's return:
The day before the game I’m sure they’d like to have the pairs the same as the are in practice, but things can change...I haven’t played with him yet, so it will be a little bit of a learning process for (me), also. I’ll just try to be as aware as I can of what he’s doing, and what he wants to do, and try to adjust.
For the time being, Burns remains on injured reserve, so to dress him a roster spot will have to be cleared. Sharks coach Todd McLellan admitted his staff had some tough decisions to make. He suggested that the more outside evaluations from Larry Robinson and Jim Johnson may bring a perspective to his and Jay Woodcroft's familiarity.
But he also said putting Burns in Saturday may be pushing it. Burns famously intimated that when he was close, he would shave; as of right now, he still sports the Paul Bunyan look. In all likelihood, he will join the Sharks on the road trip that begins Monday in Columbus. The Sharks already have to sit one defenseman, and it may less difficult for Burns to handle the speed and skill of the Blue Jackets than the Coyotes.
Kurz reported via Twitter that this likely means waiving Nick Petrecki. Looking weak in his only NHL game and being out of options to keep him from being exposed may mean "that experiment is pretty much over." With the blue line healthy, he is not going to find his way back onto the ice.
Even if Burns does not play, San Jose will have to scratch a player performing well for the most part.
Many people see Douglas Murray's lack of speed and suggest he spend a day in the press box. They fail to see how valuable his shot-blocking has been on the penalty kill, or the value of his hitting on a team lacking in punishing players.
Justin Braun was playing solidly even though he had not contributed offensively. But he had one of the worst games on the blue line under McLellan with two direct mistakes leading to goals. Sitting him makes sense, but the pairs in practice suggest it may be Matt Irwin's turn to sit again.
Irwin skated with Murray and Dan Boyle with Marc-Edouard Vlasic. If you are going to sit only one of a pair, it would likely be the younger player because the veteran will be more used to his partner. Despite being one of only four Sharks defensemen with a point, he has been exposed for missing assignments during the three-game losing streak.
But the pairs could be misleading. It does not make any more sense to put the two best skaters together than it does to break up practice pairs. Coaches have their reasons for these personnel groupings, and are not about to explain their logic and tip their hands.
The only other option is to sit Jason Demers. After a slow start in his first game, he played better than anyone else on the unit for his second game in Anaheim but was inexplicably scratched the next night.
When Burns comes back, it might be just for the first night of the back-to-backs (San Jose is in Nashville Tuesday) to ease him in. It might also be easier to find a forward to sit and play seven men on the blue line to achieve the same goal.
For instance, Andrew Desjardins was a non-participant in practice Friday because of "sniffles." If he has anything close to what Boyle contracted a week ago, expect him to be scratched in favor of T.J. Galiardi. One forward must sit anyway, with the following lines making sense based on performance thus far:
- Patrick Marleau should return to the line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. This line not only has the continuity McLellan said was key to early success, but a mix of open space, net-front and behind the goal line presence plus a play-maker to feed two shooters, with one right-handed shot.
- Scott Gomez should return to the left wing with Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe because he was involved in the most chances with them. Even though Clowe is the slowest forward on a line without a lot of speed, he provides a net-front presence to mix with a play-maker and skater.
- Martin Havlat has worked well with Michal Handzus and Tommy Wingels to get this line to come alive. This combination would seem to not be the best choice with two speedsters and two play-makers, but how they perform on the ice means more than how they match up on paper. At least they, too, have a right-handed shooter.
- Galiardi would slide onto the fourth line left wing, with James Sheppard taking the middle and Adam Burish the right wing. This is another line with speed, but Burish provides it with some size and a right-handed shot as well.
Eventually, the team will be looking to play just six on the blue line. Demers may provide the best skill of the four they must choose from for their two scratches. Kurz has said he sees Irwin sticking around, but he is the only one the team can send down without risking him being claimed. Once the blue line is healthy, it is hard to see them playing him over all two of the three others regularly, and keeping an inexperienced player without giving him ice time does not help him develop.
Look for Burns to wait another game before starting the 2013 season. Look for Braun to sit in the meantime, and Petrecki to be waived to make room for Burns by Monday. Once McLellan is satisfied Burns is up to speed—something he noted the Sharks cannot wait for in the condensed season—he will send Irwin down unless he is ready to sit two veterans most nights.
The best pairings have a puck-mover and stay-at-home defenseman, which could be achieved with the following blue line partners:
- Boyle-Stuart gives the team speed and physicality, with both players being assets on both ends but one more defensive and one more offensive. Both players can handle big minutes, and one of the pair shoots right and the other left.
- Burns-Vlasic again provides a skater and a physical player with one right-handed and the other left. Both players are assets on both ends, but this time the skater is more defensive and the physical player more offensive. Vlasic can handle the big minutes Burns will be unable to for a while, but that will come on by playing extra minutes on the penalty kill.
- Demers-Murray contains the same dynamic as the first pair, but the players are only assets on one end of the ice. The Sharks value shot-blocking and have too few hitters to sit the player best at both, no matter his limitations. But Murray is a more likely choice to sit (especially on one night of a back-to-back) to make room for Braun on occasion because Demers is needed to advance the puck and provide offense from the point.