Which blueliner does Todd McLellan trust most to start in the defensive zone?

Marc-Edouard Vlasic has consistently been called upon for the bulk of the Sharks defensive zone starts during his career in San Jose.

Zone starts are always an interesting subject to look into, primarily because they tell us a lot about how Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan views the components of his blueline. The methodology is fairly straightforward-- if a defenseman sees a lot of starts in his own end McLellan views him as a stopper, while a majority of starts in the offensive zone means he sees the guy as an offensive spark plug.

It's not an exact science by any means, especially when one considers the fluidity of hockey where changes on the fly are common place, but zone starts an essential part of the tool box for anyone wanting to take a deeper look into McLellan's playbook and highlight some players who see the tougher situations.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic has always been a player who sees a lot of defensive zone starts, which has contributed to the assertion that he is an underrated player across the league (as well as amongst the Sharks fanbase). Vlasic isn't known for his overpowering brute strength, something that guys such as Douglas Murray are lauded for. Instead, he relies upon positioning and deft stickwork to push attackers to the outside and manage the rush. It's something that he had trouble with during the early part of the season (carrying a -10 into November 24th's matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks), but a recent resurgence both offensively and defensively has contributed to a much more typical performance from Brine Time* in December, where he is a +4 despite his notoriously difficult assignments.

*I've been plugging this nickname hard the last two weeks. Learn to love it.

Niclas Wallin and Justin Braun have also seen the bulk of their faceoffs come in the defensive zone this year for San Jose, with Derek Joslin, Douglas Murray, and Dan Boyle all seeing more fortuitous opportunities in the offensive zone.

Here are the relevant numbers for all Sharks defenseman this season in respect to zone starts. I've also included totals from previous seasons for the relevant parties in order to provide a basis of comparison from season to season:


Defenseman Even Strength Defensive Zone Starts

Player
10-11 Dzone %
Rank
09-10 Dzone %
Rank
08-09 Dzone %
Rank
Justin Braun 57.6
1
-
-
-
-
Niclas Wallin
55.0 2
48.8
8
-
-
Marc-Edouard Vlasic
54.0 3
56.7
1
50.8
1
Kent Huskins 50.0 4
50.7
6
-
-
Jason Demers
49.5
5
51.3
5
-
-
Dan Boyle
48.6 6
48.2
9
43.9
7
Douglas Murray
45.3 7
48.9
7
44.3
6
Derek Joslin
41.8 8
55.2
2
-
-

Not a lot of surprises here from the big names-- as mentioned above, Vlasic has historically been a player McLellan turns to in the defensive end when the Sharks need to take care of the defensive side of the ice. He's the best defensive defenseman on the team, and is handled as such. Dan Boyle is an offensive dynamo who gets the best opportunity to showcase those talents on the team, receiving the majority of his faceoffs within the cozy confines of the attacking zone blueline. Douglas Murray, who is generally packaged together with Boyle throughout Sharks games, comes along for the ride despite being a decidedly mediocre offensive player.

What jumps out here is the amount of zone starts Justin Braun is seeing in the defensive end. 57.6% of his faceoffs are taken in front of Niemi or Niittymaki, meaning that there is an increased amount of pressure to win puck battles and take care of defensive responsibilities first. We saw the same thing last season with Derek Joslin, who despite being sheltered this year in terms of zone starts (41.8% in the defensive zone, last on the team) saw a second place finish on the team in twenty four games played.

I've consistently compared Justin Braun to the 2009-2010 version of Jason Demers-- a player whose offensive talents make him an excellent addition to the team despite his defensive shortcomings. Braun has been on the bad end of some goals this year that can be directly attributed to his mental and physical errors, which is similar to the defensive zone giveaways we were witness to last season when Demers was on the ice. They're young defenseman with room to grow, and as Demers has shown, a season under the belt can work wonders for turning an offensive stalwart into a well-rounded player.

And yet Braun is being leaned on heavily by McLellan to do the dirty work defensively, at least in respect to getting his number called during situations the coach has the most control (faceoffs). I'm not quite sure I understand the rationale behind it-- you would think that a player of Braun's offensive caliber would see more time in the offensive zone, where mistakes are less damaging and situations are more conducive to shots on net.

The explanation is probably straightforward of course-- Braun has been paired with Niclas Wallin for the majority of games lately, and with the big Swedish defenseman earning both the coaches and fans trust as the season goes along, Braun is thrust into a position where chemistry trumps changing pairs on the fly. No position in the game of hockey requires more camaraderie than the one found between defensive partners, and ensuring that remains consistent as the season moves along is paramount.

However, I would like to see Braun and Wallin get more of a shot in the offensive zone moving forward. Both players have displayed flashes of firepower as of late, and ensuring Braun has the best chance to succeed in an area of the game that the organization desires of him (offense) seems to be in the best interest of the team. Giving Vlasic and Demers more responsibility defensively off of faceoffs is an effective solution, as both players have proven this season that they are ready to shoulder a bigger load in all assets of their game.

Is Braun being thrown to the wolves by McLellan? Not in the slightest-- his quality of competition numbers indicate as much, and his ice time has returned to much more manageable levels after a huge spike two weeks ago. But I don't think it's unreasonable to expect him to see more fortuitous offensive chances on a nightly basis, no matter who his partner is on any given night.

This isn't a knock against Braun-- I think he's done as good a job as any could have predicted, and his offensive talents have produced some major dividends for the team.

But even when Braun was seeing 20+ minutes a game when the blueline was riddled with injuries, there's no reason he should be counted on to shoulder the faceoff zone start load when there are much stronger options at McLellan's disposal.

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