Marc-Edouard Vlasic scored his fifth goal of the season on Thursday night, the only offensive output to show up on the scoreboard for San Jose in a dismal outing against the St. Louis Blues. Unfortunately for Team Teal, its top defender didn’t have a great night just about anywhere else on the ice.
Even worse, this has been something of a trend. Both Vlasic and Braun were the worst possession players for the Sharks against the Blues. They posted corsi differentials of -18 and -16, respectively, at even strength. Those are god awful for any player, let alone players of their caliber.
Vlasic and Braun being near the bottom for the Sharks in possession isn’t alarming per say. They generally get the toughest assignments and the worst zone starts and, as such, don’t boast the prettiest corsi-for percentages. What’s concerning, other than Vlasic and Braun getting eaten alive by the Vladimir Tarasenko line last night (see the graphic below) is that the pairing is getting worse.
The above graphic, from hockeyviz.com, shows how each player matched up against the opposition. Blue is good and red is bad if you’re a Sharks fan. You’ll notice how Vlasic and Braun did last night and, spoiler alert, it’s not well. The Tarasenko line wreaked havoc against a worn out Sharks team but especially decimated San Jose’s shutdown pairing.
As I mentioned, this isn’t a new phenomenon. While Burns and Martin have played very well lately, Vlasic and Braun have seen their possession game go to the dogs. Check out the following graph from corsica.hockey which shows the pairing’s 25-game rolling average in 5v5 corsi-for percentage. It’s score, venue and zone adjusted.
That’s a hideously steep decline. My first thought is there could be an injury to Vlasic or Braun. That’s me putting on my speculation hat, though. I don’t recall a play, or even a rumor, that would lead me to such a conclusion. Since that chart accounts for zone starts it shouldn’t have anything to do with getting tougher draws, either.
Head coach Pete DeBoer could be doing more line matching at this time of year than previously, but even if he is we shouldn’t be seeing Vlasic and Braun struggle this mightily. After all, that’s their job. If Vlasic and Braun consistently struggle against any forward line in the NHL, the Sharks are dead in the water.
They’re still getting the best competition of anyone on the Sharks. Hockeyviz.com has a great chart, which I’ve embedded below that shows us as much. Check it out and then read my explainer on it below.
Just focus on Vlasic and Braun, it’ll be easier for me to explain that way. The teal Vlasic and Braun represent the teammates they get to play with. DeBoer mixes the top forward groups around with the defenders — it’s the opponent ice time (non-teal background) that you need to pay attention to.
That’s where you see Braun and Vlasic way at the top (facing forwards who average 17 minutes a night) compared to Burns and Martin who see weaker competition. That doesn’t tell us why Braun and Vlasic have seen such a sudden decrease in the quality of their possession numbers. Here’s my hunch, though this is based merely on speculation and the following corsica.hockey chart.
This is the same chart I showed earlier with one change: it includes the possession numbers of Burns and Martin, too. It seems odd to me that Burns and Martin went on a massive tear at about the same time Braun and Vlasic cratered. My guess, and this is speculation, is that DeBoer is stealing from Peter to pay Paul. He’s overloading Burns and Martin because he knows he can lean on Vlasic and Braun to clean up the mess.
Is it working? I mean... kind of?
This chart shows the four players goal-for percentage over the same span. While Vlasic and Braun’s numbers have dropped, they haven’t done so quite so precipitously as their possession numbers have. So... I don’t know. This is all based on a hunch anyway, so let’s not read too much into it. Regardless, I’d sleep better at night if Vlasic and Braun figured out how to play a better possession game. Okay? Let’s work on that.