Over the past few seasons, the backbone of the San Jose Sharks has been their defense. Behind their Norris-Trophy defenseman in Brent Burns and one of the more underrated defenders in Marc-Édouard Vlasic, the Sharks have two solid anchors on their blueline — but when someone like Erik Karlsson is available, then it doesn’t hurt to have to acquire another Norris-winning defenseman.
Although the Sharks have three defensemen that will bring all the attention, the other three spots on the blueline are essential as well, since one likely has the assignment of being Burns’s partner. When the regular starters have played this preseason, the bottom pair has consisted of Justin Braun and Brenden Dillon, but Tim Heed could also see time. Nonetheless, these three are more than capable of filling the bottom pair roles.
The Bottom Pair
Beginning with Dillon, last season he played in 81 games, totaling 383 minutes alongside Brent Burns. Using numbers provided by Corsica Hockey, it shows how the 27-year-old complimented Burns, as the two combined for a Corsi-For% (CF%) of 53.41 along with a Relative Corsi-For% (Rel CF%) of 3.11, so the Sharks controlled possession of the puck with Dillon and Burns together.
However, during the preseason Burns has played alongside Joakim Ryan and so this season could mean Dillion will play with a different partner, most likely Braun. When it comes to playing without Burns, Dillon was decent; last year he saw time with Tim Heed, Dylan Demelo, and Braun. Focusing on his minutes with Braun, the pair struggled together possessing a CF% of 48.66 and a -1.71 Rel CF%, but the two only saw 110 minutes together last season, so it’s a small sample size.
Braun, on the other hand, played the majority of the season with Vlasic as the duo spent over 1200 minutes together on the blueline, but it wasn’t pretty. Vlasic and Braun had a combined CF% of 45.94, and a -7.07 Rel CF%. Finding a new partner for Vlasic and having Braun in a bottom pairing role is not a new subject, but it’s one the Sharks addressed with the addition of Karlsson, as he will take over Braun’s spot on what will likely be the top pairing by nature.
Braun and Dillon will face third and fourth lines on most nights, as they’re no longer expected to play in top-four roles. It takes the pressure and microscope off them whenever either Vlasic or Burns is struggling. Nonetheless, hockey is a long season and if there’s injury or suspensions down the road, expect one or both to make an appearance in the top four.
Another defenseman that can see time on the bottom pair is Heed, who appeared in 29 games last season primarily playing alongside Dillon. The two played a little under 200 minutes together, but they were effective, as they possessed a 56.5 CF% and Rel CF% of 4.67 — a small sample size, but not bad at all. Along with Dillon and Braun, these three are solid pieces for the bottom pair.
The Top Four
Being selected in the seventh round means there’s a long-shot of making it to the National Hockey League, but Joakim Ryan is trying to prove that the Sharks have a late-round gem on their hands. Last season was Ryan’s first with the big club, after spending two seasons with the San Jose Barracuda, and despite him being relatively new, Ryan saw significant time with then-top defenseman Brent Burns, playing over 700 minutes together. It appears as though Peter DeBoer will go with this pair to start the season.
Burns’ possession numbers of 53.7 CF% and 3.93 Rel CF% with Ryan show that it doesn’t matter who he’s paired with, as he will put up points, notching 67 last season. The more intriguing part of the season for Burns will come on the power play, as he and Karlsson will hop over the boards to terrorize teams for any penalties they take. Expect Burns to generate a few more goals on the power play with Karlsson setting him up for one-timers, if the Sharks opt for two defensemen on the top unit and make adjustments in Burns’ position during the man-advantage.
Speaking of Karlsson, Vlasic will have a new partner this season. The 31-year-old will be able to give the puck to Karlsson and let him go to the races; furthermore, he will have someone that takes the load off his shoulders when it comes to defending opponents’ top lines. Expect Vlasic’s possession numbers to skyrocket, as Karlsson enjoys playing defense by keeping the puck away from the opposing side.
Finally, the newest member of the Sharks, Erik Karlsson. Last season was a rough one for the 27-year-old off the ice. He and his wife lost their first child, as well as the ongoing court proceedings that involved form teammate Mike Hoffman and his fiancée. Then add in his non-existent contract talks, which was followed up with trade rumors as it became clear that ownership was moving on from him.
That said, with all that went around him, Karlsson still put up 62 points, which was down season for the defender, but on a team that didn’t look great. With a clean slate and arguably having the best defensive partner of his career in Vlasic, Karlsson will look to focus on hockey and playing on a team that has Stanley Cup aspirations — hopefully while the Sharks and his camp work out a long-term deal that will keep him in the Bay Area.
Overall, the Sharks boast one of the top bluelines in the league and that could be enough to get them back to playing hockey in June.