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Sharks vs Oilers: Previewing the defensive matchup

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The Oilers aren’t bad on the blueline, but the Sharks have a clear edge.

NHL: Calgary Flames at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s an area where the Sharks hold a clear advantage over the Oilers in their first round matchup, it’s on the blueline. San Jose boasts better top-end skill and better depth, but there are some concerns given the play of their shutdown pairing down the stretch.

We’ll begin with the Wookiee in the room: Norris Trophy favorite Brent Burns. Burns, quite simply, is the most dynamic player in this series outside of Connor McDavid.

He led all NHL defensemen in goals (29), points (76), and shots on goal (320), leading the next nearest defensemen by 79 shots. His 8.87 individual shots for per 60 (iSF60) was also the league leader among defensemen, according to Corsica.

The Sharks’ season-long losing streak coincided with Burns’ season-long points drought, and demonstrated how important the defenseman is to San Jose’s offense. After going seven games without a point, managed 6 in his last 9 games of the regular season as the Sharks’ results improved, albeit slightly.

Key to Brent Burns’ emergence over the past two seasons has been his defense partner, Paul Martin. Martin, 35, averaged the lowest ice time of his career this season, but was still fourth among Sharks defensemen in relative CF% (0.76%).

Two of the Sharks’ best defensemen in relative possession were the third pairing of Brenden Dillon and David Schlemko. Schlemko was signed to stabilize that pairing after the duo of Dillon and former Shark Roman Polak were exposed in the Stanley Cup Final, and alongside an improved Dillon, the pair managed to do just that.

Dillon posted career-highs in CF% and FF%, and was a visibly better skater compared to last season. With Schlemko, the Sharks now have a third pairing that can keep up with quick teams, which will serve them well against Edmonton’s skilled forward group.

As the third pairing experienced a career year, the second pairing of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun struggled. Vlasic, who was never statistically the same after suffering a facial injury in December, and Braun still drew the toughest assignments on the team, but posted career-worst numbers while doing so.

The pair did, however, managed to find some success against Connor McDavid. In just over 50 minutes against the Oilers’ star at even strength, Vlasic and Braun posted a 52.6 CF%, according to Puckalytics. Vlasic and Braun shut down pretty much every Western team’s top unit on the way to the Stanley Cup Final last year, and regaining that form will go a long way towards beating the Oilers.

Should the Sharks experience any ineffectiveness on injury on the blueline, second-year defenseman Dylan DeMelo can likely fill in just fine. DeMelo played only 25 games, but still managed to double his point total from a season ago (8). He still experienced pretty sheltered minutes (53.3% offensive zone starts), but was trusted to play a hair over two minutes more than he did last year.

The Oilers cannot match the Sharks’ depth or high-end talent on the blueline, but they do have a versatile group somewhat reminiscent of Pittsburgh’s a season ago, albeit without a top defender as good as Kris Letang.

Two minutes and thirteen seconds are all that separates the Oilers’ top four defensemen in terms of ice time. Oscar Klefbom, who led the Oilers in time on ice, is their top offensive weapon on the blueline, as demonstrated in the Oilers’ win over the Sharks last Thursday when he assisted on all four of Edmonton’s goals.

Klefbom’s partner is fellow Swede Adam Larsson, whose possession numbers this season approached the strong marks he posted earlier in his career. In his first season with the Oil, Larsson started 16.7% less of his shifts in the defensive zone as he did in his last season in New Jersey, which freed him from a role he wasn’t quite suited for with the Devils. Larsson may not have been worth Taylor Hall, but he’s a solid defensemen who can break out of his own zone well, a skill that meshes well with Edmonton’s transition game.

Andrej Sekera was not far behind Klefbom with 35 points, the second-best numbers of his career. Sekera’s possession numbers did not match the heights of previous seasons, largely because he spent so much time with Kris Russell. Together, the pairing posted a 45.3% CF% in 835:52. Apart, Russell (48.6 CF%) and Sekera (55.4 CF%) were much better.

Sekera played alongside rookie defenseman Matthew Benning in the Oilers’ regular season finale on Sunday. Benning’s 52.13 CF% was tied for the highest among Oilers defensemen, according to Corsica. He and Sekera played 304:56 together, and posted a strong 54.9 CF% in the process.

Russell, meanwhile, primarily played with Eric Gryba in the season finale. Gryba’s 52.13 CF% was tied with Benning’s mark for the best among Oilers defensemen. Gryba only played 40 games this season, but could draw in over Benning in Game 1 tomorrow.

Whoever draws in will most likely play alongside former first round pick Darnell Nurse. Nurse missed extended time this season due to injury, but still surpassed his point totals from last season (career-high 11 points) in 25 less games. Nurse’s 51.05 CF% was third-best among defensemen, per Corsica, and played well with both Benning and Gryba.

Oilers head coach Todd McLellan has some flexibility as to how he utilizes his group. As the Sharks witnessed firsthand against Pittsburgh last year, a versatile defensive group backing a forward core stacked with high-end talent can go a long way.

Still, the Sharks hold a distinct advantage over the Oilers on the blueline, given that their depth is better and they have the series’ best defenseman. Given the injuries up front, San Jose will need its blueliners to be at their best in order to advance to the second round.