I talk about Marc-Edouard Vlasic so regularly that many ask if I consider him underrated anymore. Ignoring the relative meaninglessness of the word "underrated," or "overrated," the PHWA nominated Brent Burns for an award given to the best defender in the NHL when, at least in my opinion, he's not even the best defender on the Sharks.
Do you know how many times the PHWA bestowed a similar honor on Vlasic? Zero. Despite being one of the best defenders in the NHL for years, Vlasic has gotten surprisingly little love for the Norris and it doesn't appear a lifetime achievement nomination is coming his way any time soon. The Sharks defender gets more media coverage because of his adorable dogs than for his outstanding play. Players like Vlasic and Paul Martin are in some ways doomed to be damned with faint praise.
"He's a great shutdown defender" just doesn't sound as good as "a literal sasquatch from the literal woods broke a franchise scoring record." I don't make the rules. So as unsexy as it might be, it's time to talk about just how important Vlasic and his partner Justin Braun are to the Sharks. Braun, for his part, isn't underrated so much as he just isn't talked about all that much. It's tough to separate a defender from his partner, so today I won't. They're a package deal — and it's a pretty good package.
No defender on the Sharks sees tougher competition than Vlasic and Braun with only the top forward line of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl facing competition with a higher TOI than the pair. For the visual learners among us, check out the chart below from War-On-Ice.com.
Time On Ice is the most common shorthand for quality of teammates and competition. You can see in the chart that Vlasic and Braun routinely face the enemy's toughest competition while not exactly being paired with the cream of the crop from the Sharks. Despite that, the pair posts phenomenal possession numbers. Braun's 5v5 relative fenwick (his fenwick-for percentage - the fenwick-for percentage of the team when he's not on the ice) of 2.43 is eighth on the Sharks this postseason.
What makes this pair so good is their ability to shut down the opposition's offense. While the Burns-Martin pair fights fire with fire, the Vlasic-Braun pairing turns on a big ole firehose on the opposition's best talent. Braun is fourth on the Sharks in fenwick against per 60 minutes (34.99) and Vlasic is just two spots behind (35.26) during the postseason. Their numbers preventing high-danger scoring chances are somehow even better.
Braun has allowed just 8.86 high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes in 5v5 play during the playoffs while Vlasic has allowed only 9.51 over the same timeframe. That's good enough for second and fourth on the Sharks (Dainius Zubrus is first thanks to playing five games almost exclusively in the offensive zone).
What this pairing offers goes beyond defensive excellence. By soaking up the pressure of the opposition's best players, they allow Burns and Martin to wreak havoc on offense against softer competition. Braun and Vlasic don't just set the tone defensively, they put the Sharks in a position to strike on offense. They've also put the Sharks within striking distance of their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history.