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2013-14 San Jose Sharks Season preview: The defense

1st pairing

LD – Marc-Edouard Vlasic

Age: 26 Height: 6-1 Weight: 205
2013-14 Cap Hit: $4,250,000 through 2017-18
2013 Stats: 48 GP, 3G, 4A, 7P, 20:49 ATOI, 53.7% 5v5 Corsi, 0.43 5v5 P/60, 0.00 5v4 P/60

Last Season: Vlasic took yet another step towards entrenching himself as one of the league’s best defensemen, proving (as if he hadn’t already proven it in 2010-11) that he can single-handedly carry a defense pairing even when teamed up with a lesser light like Justin Braun or Brad Stuart. In the regular season, among blueliners who faced an above-average quality of competition and started more shifts in their own end than the offensive zone, only Zdeno Chara, Kris Letang, Dan Hamhuis and Johnny Boychuk posted better on-ice shot differentials at even-strength than Vlasic. In the playoffs, Vlasic shut down the Sedins in round one and Anze Kopitar in round two despite playing through a foot injury.

This Season: On a blueline that features its fair share of question marks, Vlasic is decidedly a known quantity and will be expected to log heavy minutes at even-strength, where he needs to carry the team’s shutdown pair, as well as on the penalty kill. He was on pace for just 12 points over 82 games last season, which would have been his lowest output ever, so a bit more offense certainly wouldn’t hurt even if it isn’t necessary for him to once again be the team’s most valuable defender.

Key Stat: In a little over 97 minutes of ice time on the penalty kill, Vlasic was on for just four goals against and two goals for.

RD – Justin Braun

Age: 26 Height: 6-2 Weight: 205
2013-14 Cap Hit: $1,250,000 through 2014-15
2013 Stats: 41 GP, 0G, 7A, 7P, 18:48 ATOI, 50.6% 5v5 Corsi, 0.58 5v5 P/60, 1.15 5v4 P/60

Last Season: Coming off a terrific 2011-12, Braun endured something of an uneven first half of the shortened 2013 season as he was generally relegated to third-pairing duty alongside Douglas Murray. But following Murray’s trade to Pittsburgh, Braun was paired with Vlasic full-time at evens in a shutdown role at which they excelled down the stretch and into the postseason.

This Season: A significant question facing the Sharks is whether Braun is capable of holding up in that same role over a full year. He’s the half of the pairing likely to be relied on to handle the bulk of the puck-movement, certainly not an easy task when he’ll also be routinely staring down the Corey Perrys and Taylor Halls of the Pacific Division. If Braun flounders, it puts the coaching staff in a bit of a bind and likely forces them to reunite the Vlasic/Boyle pairing, leaving the rest of the defense looking awfully thin.

Key Stat: During the 330 even-strength minutes for which Vlasic and Braun were on the ice together last season, the Sharks controlled 53.6% of the shot attempts.

2nd pairing

LD – Matt Irwin

Age: 25 Height: 6-2 Weight: 210
2013-14 Cap Hit: $1,000,000 through 2014-15
2013 Stats: 38 GP, 6G, 6A, 12P, 19:06 ATOI, 54.3% 5v5 Corsi 0.49 5v5 P/60, 4.52 5v4 P/60

Last Season: Hardly on the radar to make last season’s opening night roster, an injury to Brent Burns allowed Irwin to start the year in a rather plum assignment: facing second-tier competition while paired with Dan Boyle. Despite being sent down following Burns’ recovery, Irwin’s excellent play in San Jose earned him another shot with the big club after which he never relinquished his spot. Irwin’s six goals, many of them courtesy his booming slapshot, ranked second on San Jose’s defense while his puck-moving ability and ever-present threat from the blueline somewhat focused opposing defenses away from Boyle.

This Season: As solid as Irwin was in 38 games last season, there’s always the chance he’s unable to repeat his success over a full year so it’s probably fair to label him a question mark heading into 2013-14. Ideally, he’ll remain one-half of the team’s offensively-geared defense pairing alongside Dan Boyle that’s slated to play a ton of minutes behind the Thornton line, frequently begin shifts in the offensive zone and generally face weaker opposing forwards in the hopes that they’ll be able to produce at even-strength.

Key Stat: Irwin ranked 5th among qualifying NHL defensemen last season in even-strength shot attempts per minute.

RD – Dan Boyle

Age: 37 Height: 5-11 Weight: 190
2013-14 Cap Hit: $6,666,667 cap hit through 2013-14
2013 Stats: 46 GP, 7G, 13A, 20P, 22:47 ATOI, 55.2% 5v5 Corsi, 0.45 5v5 P/60, 3.49 5v4 P/60

Last Season: With the black in Boyle’s beard turning grey, last season Todd McLellan and the Sharks’ coaching staff eased the 37-year-old defenseman off the heavy minutes he had previously logged throughout his San Jose career. Both overall and especially at even-strength, Boyle averaged fewer minutes per game than he ever had before as a Shark and the minutes he did log at evens were insulated from difficult competition and weaker teammates. Still, Boyle made the best of the minutes he received by leading the Sharks blueline in on-ice shot differential and scoring. As usual, he was also a stud in the playoffs.

This Season: In the final season of the 6-year, $40 million contract he signed with the Lightning, it’s safe to say Boyle is as motivated as ever to get the Sharks over the hump in the playoffs. Before that rolls around, they’ll need him to combine a lot of the elements he brought last season with improved even-strength production. If I sound like a broken internet, it’s largely because a lack of even-strength scoring was a major issue across the board with the team a season ago. Boyle went from averaging 1.14, 0.85 and 1.11 even-strength points per 60 minutes the three seasons before last to just 0.39 in 2013. A lot of that was due to a poor on-ice shooting percentage, which defensemen have little control over, so hopefully a rebound is in store.

Key Stat: Boyle’s 44 points in 55 playoff games since joining the Sharks ranks 28th among all NHL players (defensemen and forwards alike) over that span.

3rd pairing

LD – Brad Stuart

Age: 33 Height: 6-2 Weight: 215
2013-14 Cap Hit: $3,600,000 through 2014-15
2013 Stats: 48 GP, 0G, 6A, 6P, 20:27 ATOI, 47.8% 5v5 Corsi, 0.30 5v5 P/60, 0.00 5v4 P/60

Last Season: Returning to San Jose after being traded for Joe Thornton in November 2005, Brad Stuart wasn’t exactly the same player last season that he was during his first tour of duty with the Sharks. Or perhaps it’s just that the NHL is no longer the same league. Stuart has never been the most mobile defenseman, fluid skater or capable outlet passer. But his physical own-zone presence was enough to make him effective prior to the 2005 lockout and it was enough to make him effective when he was attached at the hip to elite puck-movers like Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall in Detroit. That didn’t really fly when he was continually paired with players who possess similar deficiencies like Douglas Murray and Scott Hannan. As a result, Stuart finished the year with some gruesome underlying numbers and was only saved from being constantly victimized for goals against by Antti Niemi’s excellent play behind him.

This Season: Stuart is 33 years old and a 14-year NHL veteran. He isn’t going to change his game and the two years and $7.2 million cap hit remaining on his contract means he likely isn’t changing teams in the near future either (then again, if Douglas Murray can fetch two second round picks…). What the Sharks need to do is work around his weaknesses. That means no inserting Stuart and Scott Hannan into the same lineup, let alone as partners on the team’s third pairing. Pairing Stuart with Demers allows both players to focus on the aspects of the game they specialize in while not being forced to exit their comfort zone. Stuart is also a good bet to figure heavily into the penalty kill.

Key Stat: Stuart’s 2:38 a game of shorthanded ice time last season ranked first on the team.

RD – Jason Demers

Age: 24 Height: 6-1 Weight: 195
2013-14 Cap Hit: $1,500,000 through 2013-14
2013 Stats: 22 GP, 1G, 2A, 3P, 18:37 ATOI, 48.7% 5v5 Corsi, 0.53 5v5 P/60, 0.00 5v4 P/60

Last Season: Unfortunately, the 2013 season can’t really be viewed as anything other than a disappointing one for Jason Demers. What was initially viewed as a make-or-break year for his Sharks career featured the young defenseman drawing into just 22 games, a healthy scratch more often than not, and just one postseason game due to injury. When he was in the lineup, Demers was sub-par at even-strength but did contribute to the improved penalty kill in a second unit capacity.

This Season: Demers is healthy to start the year and is coming off a terrific preseason in which he spearheaded a potent Sharks power play. With Burns taking a forward role on the second unit this season, Demers could very well be a mainstay on the second unit power play in addition to the second unit penalty kill. Even if he can’t rekindle the even-strength success he enjoyed in 2010-11, he could carve out a nice role for himself as a valuable piece on special teams. He’s also a much better partner for Brad Stuart at evens than Scott Hannan.

Key Stat: Demers was on the ice for just 2.1 goals against per 60 minutes of penalty kill ice time, the best rate among Sharks defensemen.

LD – Scott Hannan

Age: 34 Height: 6-1 Weight: 215
2013-14 Cap Hit: $1,000,000 through 2013-14
2013 Stats: 33 GP, 0G, 1A, 1P, 19:20 ATOI, 46.0% 5v5 Corsi, 0.12 5v5 P/60, 0.00 5v4 P/60

Last Season: Re-acquired by the Sharks at last year’s trade deadline, Hannan, much like Stuart, is a player that the game has more or less passed by. He can still play his angles relatively well but it was made pretty clear during his brief stint in teal at the end of last season that Hannan is a very poor skater and has perhaps one of the worst outlet passes in the NHL (limited zone exit data seems to suggest that’s the case as well). There aren’t a whole lot of redeeming qualities to Hannan’s game these days but he remains a useful penalty killer and is probably better than what Douglas Murray has turned into, so at least there’s that.

This Season: Hannan was re-upped for 1 year and $1 million over the summer and figures to be the 7th defenseman when everyone is healthy. With Stuart having not laced them up in preseason action and likely to be out tonight, Hannan will start the year on the third pairing across from Jason Demers and hopefully regularly defers to his partner when attempting to exit the zone and is sheltered by the coaching staff from more talented opposing forwards. Matt Tennyson is likely a better player than Hannan at this point and may have been a better option as a No. 7 but more AHL experience for the youngster is preferable to him watching games from the press box, so Hannan it is.

Key Stat: Hannan ranks 4th among Sharks defensemen on the all-time games played list with 512.

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