Apart from bitter disappointment, one thing you can usually count on in the direct aftermath of playoff elimination is the inevitable leaking of injuries and ailments players soldiered through. A full account of Sharks postseason injuries is expected tomorrow during locker clean-out day but ESPN's Pierre LeBrun reported one of them just minutes after San Jose's Game 7 loss:
Vlasic played with hairline fracture in right foot (suffered Game 4). They froze it every game so he can play.— Pierre LeBrun (@Real_ESPNLeBrun) May 29, 2013
Sometimes the revelation of playoff injuries serves to explain unexpectedly poor performances. This isn't one of those times. In Games 5 through 7 of this series, despite him primarily drawing Anze Kopitar in the matchup game, the Sharks earned 54.8% of all even-strength shot attempts when Marc-Edouard Vlasic was on the ice compared to just 42.2% when he was on the bench. It was a fitting cap to a playoff campaign in which the man who proved to be the Sharks' most valuable defenseman all year long further cemented his reputation as one of the league's most dependable blueliners.
If there are positives to be drawn from San Jose's somewhat premature exit (and I'm convinced there are), the emergence of Vlasic and Justin Braun as a legitimate shutdown pair ranks high on the list. Vlasic was tasked with an unenviably difficult role all season long--frequently expected to carry inferior partners while doing battle with the conference's best forwards--that only increased in the postseason. Vlasic spent over 69% of his even-strength ice time matched against the Sedin twins in the first round, then nearly 48% of his time five aside drawing the Kopitar line against Los Angeles even with Darryl Sutter doing his best to avoid that matchup on home ice. Despite that, Vlasic was on the ice for fewer goals against per 60 even-strength minutes than any other Sharks defenseman in these playoffs. He was also the team's best penalty killer by that measure.
With Martin Havlat likely gone in the offseason, the Sharks will be hard-pressed to further deplete their forward depth and dismantle their best offensive line by moving Brent Burns back to defense. The admittedly difficult decision not to use the player the organization traded a top-six forward, their best prospect and a first-round pick for before signing to a 5-year, $28.8 million contract at the position they acquired him to play is made quite a bit easier if they can count on Vlasic and Braun to repeat their playoff performance over a full regular season. When the Sharks inked Vlasic to a long-term extension last summer, they were banking on him being the future of this defense corps. After the best regular season of his NHL career followed by a postseason in which he shut down two of the conference's best forward lines despite being partially hobbled by injury, it's safe to say that bet will pay off.