Few defense pairings in the NHL were more effective in all areas of the ice last year than the Sharks' top tandem of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Dan Boyle. We look ahead to a 2013 season in which they'll likely be reunited and relied upon to deliver in some difficult situations by the San Jose coaching staff.
2013 Cap Hit: $3,100,000
Expected Role: Tough-minutes, stay-at-home, shutdown defenseman, 1st unit penalty kill
Depth Chart Position: No. 2 defenseman
Sometimes a player is referred to as "underrated" with such irritating frequency that the label can no longer sensibly be said to apply (see: Eriksson, Loui). I don't think we'll ever reach that point with Marc-Edouard Vlasic. There is literally nothing about Vlasic's game that appears outstanding or spectacular. He isn't anything close to an offensive dynamo, he's never going to throw a bone-crushing hit, he isn't a physical demon in the corners, he isn't a particularly slick skater, he's not a player who jumps up into the rush with regularity and he isn't even one of those defensemen a scout can get away with describing as "makes a great first pass" when he really means "has no discernible offensive ability" because Vlasic just isn't all that effective on the breakout either. Nothing Vlasic accomplishes is going to glisten on a box score.
Which is why you either need to watch him closer or dig deeper into the numbers to find out exactly why he's one of the best shutdown defensemen in hockey. Or you can do both. Vlasic seems to think the game at a higher level than almost everyone else on the ice, making him a terrific positional player who excels at dismantling odd-man rushes, is lethal with the poke check and routinely stands up opposing teams at his own blueline. The result of that skillset is things like the fact that, last season, only all-world veterans Nicklas Lidstrom and Kimmo Timonen faced a greater quality of competition than Vlasic did while also posting a higher on-ice shot differential. Year after year, Vlasic consistently plays some of the toughest minutes on the Sharks' blueline while posting the best defensive results. And he's still just 25 years old.
There are certainly deficiencies in Vlasic's game but the Sharks have the luxury of surrounding him with a talented supporting cast who can negate those holes. For all the talk about San Jose's impending demise, there are still few five-man units in the NHL I would rather ice than Marleau, Thornton, Pavelski, Vlasic and Boyle.
2013 Cap Hit: $6,666,667
Expected Role: Tough-minutes, puck-moving, offensive defenseman, 1st unit power play, 2nd unit penalty kill
Depth Chart Position: No. 1 defenseman
Boyle will be 37 this summer and I've already written two posts discussing how he might be a trade (or, worst case, buyout) candidate at that point but that has everything to do with the Sharks' upcoming cap crunch and Boyle being the only expensive player on the club without a full no-trade clause. It really has nothing to do with Boyle's actual value as a hockey player because, if anything, the Ottawa native has only improved with age. When he first arrived in San Jose following an acrimonious split with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boyle was essentially a third-pairing defenseman at even-strength on a stacked Sharks blueline. Playing alongside former Bolts teammate Brad Lukowich, Boyle was sheltered as much as possible by Todd McLellan, facing almost exclusively opposing bottom-six forwards and starting shifts in the offensive zone far more often than his own end. He predictably killed in those minutes, dominating possession, scoring at will and being well-rested for his turns as the team's power play quarterback.
But the slow exodus of talent from the Sharks' back end that would proceed over the next few offseasons, first with Christian Ehrhoff rendered a cap casualty and shipped to Vancouver and then with Rob Blake announcing his retirement, meant Boyle was forced to take on an ever-increasing role until he woke up one day at the beginning of the 2010-11 season to find he was on the team's shutdown pairing with Douglas Murray. His effectiveness predictably dwindled a bit that first year as the team's go-to tough-minutes option and his struggles continued through the beginning of the 2011-12 campaign, when it was revealed he was playing with a broken foot. After recovering from that injury and swapping out Murray for Vlasic as a regular defense partner, Boyle was lights out, both in outscoring tough competition at even-strength and again leading the team's power play to dizzying heights. Since 2008, no player in the NHL has been on the ice for more shots on goal per 60 minutes of power play time than Boyle and only Ehrhoff has been on the ice for more goals per 60 during 5v4 play.
Predictably, the majority of Boyle's post-injury struggles last season came on the penalty kill as the team was particularly porous with him on the ice shorthanded. It's difficult to predict what kind of impact Larry Robinson joining the coaching staff will have on the PK unit both in a systemic sense and regarding the players involved. Boyle is probably penciled in as a second-unit PKer at this point but in games for which Murray dresses, it might make more sense for the Sharks to go with Vlasic, Murray, Brad Stuart and Brent Burns as their four primary shorthanded defensemen. In addition to potentially making the penalty kill more effective, it would significantly ease Boyle's workload after he averaged nearly two shorthanded minutes per game last year.