UPDATE (10:52 AM PST): This morning, David Schlemko was traded to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for a 2019 fifth round pick. The story has been updated to reflect that.
Last summer, the San Jose Sharks signed defenseman David Schlemko to shore up their third defense pairing. The duo of Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak had been exposed in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final against the speedy Pittsburgh Penguins, and Schlemko’s skating ability was expected to provide a boost on third pairing.
That’s precisely what happened, as a noticeably-improved Dillon thrived alongside his new defense partner, and the two finished second and third among Sharks defensemen in both relative and on-ice corsi for and fenwick for percentages. For the first time in years, the Sharks had a truly reliable third defensive pairing.
The pair will not play a minute together this season, though, after Schlemko was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in last night’s expansion draft and traded to the Montreal Canadiens today.
San Jose was well-prepared for this scenario, as General Manager Doug Wilson told the Mercury News yesterday that “[i]n the back of your mind you try to prepare for expansion,” and the performances from the Barracuda’s defensemen this season gave San Jose “the depth to lose a player.”
The Sharks clearly preferred to lose a defenseman in the Expansion Draft compared to a forward, given that the team elected to protect seven forwards and three defensemen. Despite that preference, Schlemko’s skillset isn’t easily replaceable. The Sharks have some internal options that can try, but each comes with considerable risks.
Dylan DeMelo, who’s spent the last two seasons as the seventh defenseman, is the most likely candidate to replace Schlemko. Over the last two seasons, DeMelo has picked up primary assists at a higher rate than the departed defenseman, but that’s about it statistically.
As the above HERO Chart (courtesy of Own the Puck) shows, Schlemko generates and suppresses shots better than DeMelo, and also scores goals at a higher rate. The good news, though, is that both players outperform the typical third pairing defender in some areas, according to these additional charts from Own The Puck.
The bad news is that Schlemko was far better, and performed closer to that of a typical second pairing defenseman based on Own the Puck’s parameters, despite averaging far less ice time.
Unsurprisingly, Schlemko was much better alongside Dillon than DeMelo was this past season. The former pair posted a score-and-venue adjusted even-strength corsi percentage that was 5.82% higher (53.82%) than the latter, and a score-and-venue adjusted even-strength fenwick percentage that was 8.52% higher (55.27%), according to Natural Stat Trick. Schlemko and Dillon also generated 7.32 more shot attempts per hour, and allowed 5.11 fewer attempts per hour. DeMelo and Dillon were better together in DeMelo’s rookie campaign in 2015-16, but still failed to play at the level of Schlemko and Dillon.
DeMelo’s offensive outburst this season (8 points in 25 games) does offer a bit of hope, but he’s probably due for regression after the Sharks scored on 9.7% of their shots with him on the ice at even strength compared to 5.8% the season before, according to Hockey Reference. Still, if DeMelo continues to shoot the puck at the rate he did this season (4.64 5v5 shots/60), he can mitigate some, but not all, of what blueline offense leaves with Schlemko (5.86 5v5 shots/60). Of course, since DeMelo’s played just 70 games over the past two seasons, and it’s worth examining his performance over a larger, more consistent sample this season.
While DeMelo is expected to take Schlemko’s spot, the defensemen behind him may be more intriguing options. Tim Heed and Joakim Ryan signed two-year extensions last weekend, and are under contract longer than DeMelo.
Heed scored 56 points in 55 AHL games this season, his first professional season in North America. He also impressed in his lone game with San Jose in January, and won the Salming Trophy as the Swedish Hockey League’s top defenseman in 2014-15. Ryan, meanwhile, scored 49 points in his second full professional season, and has scored more points per game (0.57) in his AHL career than DeMelo (0.35) or Schlemko (0.50). Heed and Ryan certainly have the offensive upside to potentially match Schlemko’s production, but it may be too much to expect either player to do so in their first NHL season, even with such strong track records.
After a season of reliability, the Sharks’ third pairing is now a bit of question mark. It’s been that way for much of the past decade, and where it was before the team signed Schlemko just over a year ago. San Jose has some intriguing internal options that can replace Schlemko effectively, but whether or not they will is another matter entirely.