On paper, the San Jose Sharks have one of the league’s best blue lines this season. The Sharks boast one of the league’s best shutdown pairings, a Norris Trophy candidate alongside a reliable partner, and a free-agent acquisition who was one of the league’s best defensemen on the power play a season ago. Their sixth defensemen is a bit of a question mark, but with options waiting in the wings with the AHL’s Barracuda, the Sharks have depth beyond the NHL.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic & Justin Braun
Vlasic (2015-16 stats): 67 GP, 23:08 ATOI, 39 points (8 goals, 31 assists)
Braun: 80 GP, 20:34 ATOI, 23 points (4 goals, 19 assists)
Vlasic and Braun were simply one of the league’s shutdown best pairings last season. Among defensemen that played 500 or more minutes together, Vlasic and Braun ranked sixth in relative Corsi-For (CF) percentage, seventh in relative Fenwick-For (FF) percentage, and fourth in suppressing shots (Shots against/60), according to Corsica. This all came despite starting just over 25% of their shifts in the offensive zone, the sixth lowest of any pairing that played over 500 minutes last year.
Braun and Vlasic are coming off of career-best offensive years, too. Braun matched his career highs in goals and points, while Vlasic set new bests in goals, assists, and points last year. It remains to be seen whether his career-high even strength shooting percentage over the last two seasons is Vlasic’s new normal, and he benefited from an up-tick in secondary assists. But Vlasic remains on the second power play unit, and will be in a position to replicate that offensive success once again.
Paul Martin & Brent Burns
Martin: 78 GP, 20:44 ATOI, 20 points (3 goals, 17 assists)
Burns: 82 GP, 25:52 ATOI, 75 points (27 goals, 48 assists)
Brent Burns is coming off of the best season of his career, in large part because of Paul Martin’s acquisition last offseason. With the ever-reliable Martin playing alongside him, Burns’ risk-taking offensive ability was maximized last season, as he finished with a career-high 75 points and finished third in Norris Trophy voting.
There’s reason to believe that Burns can repeat that success this season, as his shooting percentage did not stray too far from his career average. He shot a career high 353 pucks on net last regular season, and if he can continue to get his shot through from the blue line, he’ll once again be among the league’s best offensive defenseman, which will make him a rich man this offseason as an unrestricted free agent. Martin, meanwhile, showed no signs of age in his first season in San Jose. He’ll be 35 at the start of this season, but he played the second-lowest minutes he ever has in a season last year. If the preseason’s any indication, he’ll see less ice time on the power play this season thanks to the acquisition of David Schlemko, which will allow DeBoer to keep Martin fresh for the postseason.
Brenden Dillon & David Schlemko
Dillon: 76 GP, 16:41 ATOI, 11 points (2 goals, 9 assists)
Schlemko: 67 GP, 18:39 ATOI, 19 points (6 goals, 11 assists) ATOI, 1
Brenden Dillon struggled with pretty much all of his partners last season, but those struggles were especially evident alongside Roman Polak against Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final last June. David Schlemko was brought in to alleviate that. After being in and out of the lineup for much of his career, Schlemko was a regular on New Jersey’s blue line last year in the best season of his career, where Pete DeBoer said he “just started to scratch the surface of what he’s capable of.”
Schlemko, too, adds to what is already a very potent power play, as his primary points/60 with the man advantage last season ranked sixth among defensemen, would have been the best rate on the Sharks. His puck-moving ability will undoubtedly help Dillon, who struggled in that area last season. With two strong pairings ahead of them, San Jose doesn’t need the two of them to shut down the opponents’ top players. They just need them to be reliable. With Schlemko alongside him, Dillon will be in a position to do just that.
Knocking on the Door
If Dillon struggles, or anyone else in the top six does, for that matter, Dylan DeMelo and Mirco Mueller will likely get the first look. DeBoer has repeatedly praised DeMelo’s dependable, reliable game this preseason. DeMelo looked capable in limited minutes last season, and could look even better alongside Schlemko, whose skating and puck-moving ability meshes well with his own. Mueller, meanwhile, is much improved since his first call-up to the big club in 2014. He’s looked capable in action this preseason, and will likely be called upon at some point this season when injuries inevitably arise. Tim Heed, a former defensemen of the year in Sweden, may also get a look after he is more acclimated to the North American game by spending some time with the Barracuda.