In his first ten seasons in the NHL, Marc-Édouard Vlasic established himself as one of the best defensemen in the league. His offensive production may not rival that of the Norris Trophy contenders, but his defensive prowess has been truly elite. A decade ago, the phrase “defensive defenseman” was used to describe physically intimidating but plodding blue liners. Guys who spent a lot of time in their own zone because they weren’t particularly adept at taking the puck from opposing forwards and turning the play up ice. Vlasic has redefined this role. He spends time in the the defensive zone is due to the fact that he starts over 54% of his non-neutral zone shifts there (per hockey-reference). Despite these difficult starting assignments, Vlasic has driven possession for the Sharks, as seen by his positive Corsi relative to his teammates for the past several seasons. In addition to his superlative defensive play, in 2015-16, Vlasic set career highs with 31 assists and 39 points.
We have come to expect a very high standard of play from Vlasic, which is why his 2016-17 was so disappointing. He finished with a Corsi For percentage of 47.8, marking the first time in his career that Vlasic was under 50% in this metric. Additionally, CF% rel was -5.4, also a career low. His scoring was down 11 points from the previous season, but unlike the possession numbers, this is in line with his typical production.
What happened? Vlasic was, once again, paired with Justin Braun, so we can scratch “new partner” off the list of reasonable explanations. Although, it should be noted that Braun’s numbers were even worse than Vlasic’s, so maybe this was a bigger factor that it first seems. Peter DeBoer gave Vlasic difficult assignments, but in line with what has been asked of him in the past. Was it, perhaps, an injury that slowed Pickles? This is a real possibility. Vlasic took a puck to the mouth in the dying seconds of a December 30 game against the Flyers, and he missed the following four games. Looking at his 25 game rolling CF% below, we can see that Vlasic’s play took a dip in January from which it never fully recovered.
The injury and Vlasic’s subsequent subpar play were clearly correlated, but did the former cause the latter? It is possible, but I am skeptical that Vlasic would have accepted an invitation to play for Team Canada at the IIHF World Championships had he suffered the type of injury that degraded his play so noticeably. I think the explanation is likely a combination of factors including (but not limited to) the injury, age, poor play from his partner (and most of the team, to be fair), and bad luck.
2016-17 Sharks 5v5 Usage Chart (via Corsica Hockey)
Marc-Édouard Vlasic Player Rolling 25-game score, zone, and venue-adjusted average CF% (via Corsica Hockey)
Marc-Édouard Vlasic Hero Chart (via Own The Puck)
Though not known for his offensive prowess, Vlasic scored a beautiful 3-on-3 overtime winner early in the season against the Ducks.
What comes next?
Vlasic has one more season remaining on his current contract, which paid him $21.25m over 5 seasons, for a $4.25 million cap hit. This is one of the best value contracts in the entire league. He can sign an extension after July 1.
Vlasic is 30 and will almost certainly be looking to sign a max term contract (8 years if he re-signs with the Sharks, 7 if he leaves as a UFA next summer). Re-signing him seems like an easy decision, but his play this season will go a long way to determining how large his next contract will be. Vlasic’s value lies in his ability to be a positive possession player, even when playing against the best offensive players on the opposing team. If Vlasic returns to the high standard of defensive play that we have come to expect, then he will earn himself a substantial raise. If, however, next season is a repeat of the last, the Sharks will have think long and hard about signing a second defenseman through his late 30’s.