The San Jose Sharks’ blueline stars two Norris Trophy winners in Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns, but the key to their Stanley Cup hopes might be Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
In theory, the 2014 Olympic gold medalist, along with long-time partner Justin Braun, is counted upon to shut down the opposition’s top scorers. This frees up offensive dynamos Karlsson and Burns to do what they do best.
But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. By any measure, the Vlasic-Braun pairing is having a difficult season against admittedly the toughest competition and zone starts.
(Rel. CF%: Corsi For Percentage, Relative to Team; GF%: Goals For Percentage; Rel. GF%: Goals For Percentage, Relative to Team; ZSR: Zone Start Ratio, percentage of non-neutral zone starts that are offensive zone starts, ZSR rank out of qualified defensive pairings, 300+ 5-on-5 minutes in 2012-13 & 2018-19, 500+ 5-on-5 minutes all other years)
Pete DeBoer, however, couldn't care less about the pairing’s possession numbers.
“When you’re playing against the McDavids of the world every night, your analytics are not going to look good,” chuckled DeBoer. “That’s the reality. Those guys, you can’t judge on that.”
Vlasic-Braun’s unsightly goal differential, however, is another matter altogether. Their current 40.0 GF% at 5-on-5 is the worst of their career.
“They’re judged on their results at the end of the game, if they’ve kept that guy off the scoresheet,” said DeBoer. “If they spend 80 percent of the time in their own end, but he doesn’t put the puck in the net, that’s the analytics you care about with those guys.”
Perhaps predictably, the duo’s counting and underlying stats have suffered as their zone starts have become more challenging.
“We’re playing against the best players,” stressed Vlasic. “There’s no room for error. We almost have to be perfect every time. We start most of our time in the D-zone.”
It’s a hard-knock life, for sure, being a shutdown NHL defenseman. But digging even deeper, what’s wrong with Vlasic-Braun?
Bret Hedican, Sharks color commentator and veteran blueliner of 1,147 NHL regular season and playoff games, was kind enough to share his thoughts.
Most fans have pointed a finger at Braun for the partnership’s troubles.
Hedican disagreed sharply, “I think Justin Braun has had a terrific season.”
We’ll get to why later. But if it’s not so much Braun, what’s going on with Vlasic?
“I see the little things that could get him back on track,” offered Hedican. “It’s about working harder in the defensive zone when you don’t have the puck.”
The 2006 Stanley Cup winner elaborated, “When the puck is dumped into the corner, the best thing you could do for your partner and for yourself is go back and get that puck as quickly as possible, so you have the opportunity to make the right play.
“If you don’t hustle back to get the loose puck in the defensive zone, you’re not going to be able to make the right play. You’re now going to pass your puck to your partner and you’re going to give him a grenade. You’ve just passed your problem off.
“You haven’t gone back to do your job, to get the puck quickly enough to give your partner a good pass.”
Hedican spelled out the three things to watch for in Vlasic’s play going forward:
- Is he going back as hard as possible to get pucks?
- Is he passing his problem off?
- Is he putting himself in position to make his partner’s job easier?
There are a number of examples of Vlasic not doing these things this year. Here’s but a few.
On Dec. 1 in Ottawa, Vlasic (44) probably could’ve gone back harder for this Senators dump-in. Instead, Mark Stone (61) separated Vlasic from the puck with relative ease:
On Oct. 30 against the New York Rangers, a forechecking Mika Zibanejad (93) cannonballed Vlasic. Braun (61) couldn’t handle Vlasic’s backhand, Zibanejad gained possession and the Rangers enjoyed a sustained cycle. This was an example of passing your problem off, not taking a hit to make the play:
On Nov. 9 in St. Louis, as Ryan O’Reilly (90) swarmed Braun, Vlasic did not make himself very available for a pass, failing to make his partner’s job easier:
What could Vlasic have done here?
When it’s clear that Braun will not be able to evade O’Reilly, Vlasic needed to “stagger” himself more quickly away from Braun’s plane. Vlasic going ahead of Braun would’ve given Braun a chance to chip it forward into Vlasic’s stride; Vlasic going behind Braun would’ve given Braun a chance to give it back to an open man.
Instead, Vlasic remained on the same plane as Braun; there was no easy way for Braun to get it to Vlasic. Braun, wisely, ate the puck, but O’Reilly still teased a turnover.
Hedican said, in Braun’s general defense, “He’s actually made up for some of those situations. He’s really predictable, night in, night out. He doesn’t cheat. He gives you everything he has.
“Skates very well. Worked on his skating over the last few years.”
Braun, however, wasn’t interested in singing his own praises.
“It seems like we’re 90 percent there. Then there’s a breakdown, we miss a pass...we just have to find that next 10 percent,” Braun said. “Maybe you’re overthinking it. You’re doing somebody else’s job, when really, you should just stay with your guy.”
Responding to Braun’s calculations, DeBoer added, “Probably half of that 10 percent is being a little bit quicker in decisions and working for each other. The other half of that 10 percent, I’ll be honest with you, is some puck luck.”
So is this just a run of bad puck luck for the presumably still world-class Vlasic? Or does Doug Wilson have a lot to be worried about with a 31-year-old rearguard entering the first year of a massive eight-year extension?
Hedican does believe Vlasic has displayed some degree of actual decline.
“I saw it last year a little bit. I’ve seen it since the start of this year.
“A guy might just slip a little when it comes to going back to get loose pucks, getting open for your partner quickly so you can receive that puck, make that right play.”
That said, Hedican isn’t terribly alarmed by Vlasic’s struggles right now.
“Am I concerned? No. I don’t think Coach DeBoer is concerned either. It’s just a matter of recognizing those little things that matter.
“He could simply help himself by working a little harder to get the puck. I know he’s got better.”
DeBoer agreed, “I see good signs. I’m not worried about it.”
For what it’s worth, Vlasic knows what he has to do: “The attention to detail has to be there every shift in order to have success.”
So the consensus seems to be that while Vlasic may not be quite the same defenseman that he was in his prime, he still possesses the tools be a highly effective shutdown defender. According to Hedican, it’s on the San Jose star to find that extra gear. If Vlasic does, watch out West.
Braun remained optimistic, “Hopefully, it’s just a bad start.”
Hedican also offered his thoughts about hockey analytics’ favorite pairing, Vlasic and Karlsson. “Vlasicsson” played nine “dominant” games to start the season together, according to our own Erik Fowle, before getting broken up:
I didn’t think they looked good together. I don’t think they were a partnership that looked seamless.
Maybe it’s because Vlasic has played so long with Justin Braun. There’s an unspoken communication.
I notice when guys communicate. “Hey, I’m over here.” “Hey, somebody’s on you.”
All those little things you talk about in the defensive zone, with those two guys, you hardly hear them talk. A lot of that experience playing with each other comes from those things. They just know where each other will be.
When it came to Karlsson and Vlasic, I didn’t see that feeling of comfort playing with one another early on. Sometimes, you see it right away. You see the chemistry between, say, a centerman and a winger.
As a coach, Pete DeBoer has to weigh the fact, are we going to let this linger on? Let them go through it?
Now you’ve got Karlsson, Burns or Vlasic stepping on the ice at all times. I think this team is better breaking the guys up. When you can keep all three of these pairs fresh, harder minutes for sure, you’re going to be better off long-term.
[Brenden Dillon-Karlsson] look comfortable together. It gives Dillon an opportunity to get on the ice a little more. He had a really good year last year; I thought Dillon has gotten better every year.
(Stats as of 12/17/18, courtesy of Corsica, Hockey Reference, HockeyViz, Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com and Sporting Charts.)