Sharks Gameday: Do I Still Have Those Blueline Blues?

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5:00 PST
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5-4-1, 11 points 6-1-2, 14 points
12th in Western Conference
5th in Western Conference

Television
CSN-CA
Radio
98.5 KFOX, Sjsharks.com
Antagonists
St. Louis Game Time
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

There's no doubt in my mind the Sharks eventually need to upgrade their blueline if they wish to legitimately contend for a Stanley Cup this spring. I've made that case for what seems like eons now, and the first ten games of the season haven't changed much of that for me. It's a weak spot for the team, and one that could potentially be their downfall against the higher powered teams in the Western Conference like Detroit, Vancouver, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

When I look at the current defenseman on the roster I cringe a little bit. There has definitely been some bright spots, and I'll get to those in a moment, but when comparing the roster to other teams in the West the Sharks blueline doesn't quite measure up. Before the season began I would have told you that the defensive pairings looked like the offspring of Michael Berryman and Jocelyn Wildenstein. The kind of ugly you can't wipe from your poor cerebral cortex even if you had an economy sized bucket of Clorox handy.

Yet, with a morbid curiosity usually reserved for watching Lifetime specials in my lucky PJ's, I tuned in. And while we're only ten games deep here, the early returns are actually kind of compelling.

As Ivan mentioned yesterday, the Sharks are currently fourth in the NHL in terms of shots against per game (26.8). That is a great number no matter which way you cut it, and indicates to me that either a) they haven't played a large number of games against team who can pump shots on net (most of their opponents thus far have been mediocre in that regard) or b) the defense is better than I thought it was going to be headed into the year.

As with most things, the answer probably lies somewhere in the ooey gooey middle.

Immediately my question becomes who has begun to take on more workload in all situations on the ice. The loss of Rob Blake this offseason was a big one considering his high-grade advanced statistics from last season, and one that left the Sharks with some big shoes to fill. So who has picked up the slack?


San Jose Sharks Defenseman

Year
Player Even Strength
Power play
penalty kill
total TOI
2010-2011
Dan Boyle
16:39
5:36
3:20
25:36
2009-2010

19:21
4:17
2:34
26:12
Difference
Dan Boyle
-2:42
+0:59
+0:46
-0:36
------- ------- ------- ------- ------- -------
2010-2011
Marc-Edouard Vlasic
15:55
0:40
2:53
19:29
2009-2010

17:23
1:43
2:58
22:05
Difference
Marc-Edouard Vlasic -1:28
-1:03
-0:05
-2:36
------- ------- ------- ------- ------- -------
YEAR PLAYER EVEN STRENGTH
POWER PLAY
PENALTY KILL
TOTAL TOI
2010-2011
Douglas Murray
14:55
1:23
2:41
19:00
2009-2010

17:14
0:30
2:35
20:20
Difference
Douglas Murray -2:19
+0:53
+0:06
-1:20
------- ------- ------- ------- ------- -------
2010-2011
Kent Huskins
13:49
0:08
1:44
15:42
2009-2010

15:09
0:40
1:39
17:29
Difference
Kent Huskins -1:20
-0:32
+0:05
-1:47
------- ------- ------- ------- -------
-------
YEAR PLAYER EVEN STRENGTH
POWER PLAY
PENALTY KILL
TOTAL TOI
2010-2011
Jason Demers
14:01
2:42
1:38
18:23
2009-2010

12:25
2:22
0:37
15:25
Difference
Jason Demers +1:36
+0:20
+1:01
+2:58
------- ------- ------- ------- ------- -------
2010-2011
Niclas Wallin
14:58
0:07
2:11
17:18
2009-2010

14:17
0:08
1:56
16:22
Difference
Niclas Wallin +0:41
-0:01
+0:15
+0:56

Jason Demers was the only Sharks defenseman to see an increase in every single category. Niclas Wallin picked up an extra shift at evens and essentially stayed pat everywhere else, while Murray picked up just over a shift on the power play. Boyle has received more special teams time but has greatly reduced his minutes at even strength.

In terms of analysis, I think that Demers' increase in ice time is well-deserved. He has looked very composed on the breakout, picked his spots phenomenally when deciding to jump into the play, and has done a very good job of cleaning up his turnovers in the defensive zone. Twenty three games into the season last year I wrote a piece about his power play wizardry as a first year defenseman, something that has certainly held true throughout his time spent in San Jose, but I never expected the level of growth that he's shown this year in his own end.

Along with the annually underappreciated Kent Huskins, Demers has been the most consistent blueliner the team has dressed. That pairing has yet to give up a single goal against in a whopping 341 minutes of ice time this season (!!!), a statistic that just might be a San Jose Sharks record. Erik Johnson of the St. Louis Blues (16:46 ES) is the only other player with over 8 games played that has an unblemished even strength record (although he did give up a marker shorthanded) -- the fact that two Sharks have achieved this is quite the accomplishment, especially with all the issues the team has had at times playing defense.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it Sherlock. Demers and Huskins, Orthrus of defensive destruction, co-winners of the 2011 Norris Trophy. And most definitely giving up a goal tonight because I mentioned it.

As for the other four defenseman, players who see tougher competition I should add, the results have been mixed. I like the fact that McLellan has leaned less on Dan Boyle at even strength this season, but I don't like the fact that he is seeing more time on the kill. I think a part of McLellan knows that Boyle's age could play tricks on him later in the year if he continues to get massive amounts of ice time again, but when the Sharks are hurting for points, you tend to forgot about ice time management. If San Jose gets going here I wouldn't be surprised to see Boyle's PK time drop and every other player on the blueline pick up a shift or two to offset that loss.

Douglas Murray has been frustrating at times and brilliant in others. It's pretty clear that speedier teams give him a lot of issues, and watching him make the mistake of stepping up in the neutral zone to make a big hit at inopportune times puts a drain on the soul. If he can strike a balance between Chipchura and Calgary it would go a long way towards helping the team win hockey games.

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Mr. Brownridge, however, was not one to encourage a conservative lifestyle

And then you have Vlasic and Wallin.

I don't think there's been a single player this season who has fell short of my expectations more so than Marc-Edouard Vlasic. To give up on him right now would obviously be ludicrous considering he has been one of the best shutdown defenseman in the NHL during the last two years, but he needs improve immensely from where he currently stands this season. He's struggled with clearing the puck, he's struggled in the corners, he's struggled off the rush, he's struggled in transition. The thing is, I don't even care that he has yet to register a point this season. Although goals and assists would obviously be a welcome addition to his game, Vlasic's role has always been to take on the toughs and prevent the other team from getting shots away. During his career in San Jose, he's done just that. And done it remarkably well.

If the Sharks are going to succeed this year, Vlasic will have to be a big part of it. There's no room for him not to be.

As for Wallin, my eyeballs have been fairly mercurial from game to game on his play. His signing received a lot of criticism from myself this offseason, partly due to his $2.5MM contract, and partly due to the fact that the Sharks seemed to adamantly believe he was a top-four player at this stage of his career, a view I didn't agree with. He held value on the bottom pairing, but wouldn't end up being a guy the Sharks could count on to play in the top four.

Has he changed that opinion? Yes and no. Wallin has been much better than I thought he would be playing with Vlasic, and frankly, has outplayed his defensive partner the majority of nights. If you had asked me before the year whether Vlasic or Wallin would be covering the others mistakes, I would have picked Vlasic every single time-- Vlasic is my golden child, my diamond of dreams, and Wallin is my depth defenseman who was going to be playing a role that he hadn't played in years.

It's funny how things change.

This isn't to say Wallin is the top three guy I think the Sharks need-- he's slow, he's lumbering, he gets turned around on the rush and gets beat wide. However, this is to say that his current -4 +/- rating doesn't reflect what he has given San Jose this season. I've been pleasantly surprised with his play, and if Vlasic can come to terms with whatever issues he is having right now, that pairing is going to be much more competent defensively going forward.

Good enough to make some serious noise in the playoffs? No. But good enough to allow Doug Wilson some time to tend to the coals on the trade wire fire before making his move, instead of being forced into it by a Sharks team treading water in the standings.

All in all, tonight's going to be a great test for the Sharks. St. Louis is playing some great hockey right now, and knows how to put the puck on net (34.6 SF/G, 2nd) and limit opposing team's opportunities (25.8 SA/G, 1st). Coupled with an excellent netminder in Jaroslav Halak and you have a situation where the Sharks will have their hands full.

Bring the A game boys.

Prediction: Sharks win 3-2. Goals by McGinn, Boyle, and Setoguchi.

 

Go Sharks.

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