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2019-20 Sharks season preview: Defense

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Can one of the best bluelines in the league prop this team up?

San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns (88) congratulates defenseman Erik Karlsson (65) against the Vegas Golden Knights during the first period in game two of the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center at San Jose. Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

On paper, the San Jose Sharks have arguably one of the best defenses in the National Hockey League and I’m not just saying that because I’m a Sharks fan.

Looking at the defensive rate of even-strength expected goals for the Sharks in the 2018-19 season, the Sharks allowed a rate of 2.35 expected goals against per 60 minutes during even-strength play. That’s good enough for 11th best in the league (Evolving Hockey).

The Sharks excelled at doing what they could to protect goaltenders Martin Jones and Aaron Dell. Looking at the defensive unblocked shots numbers for the Sharks in the 2018-19 season, the team allowed 37.68 shots on goal per 60 minutes of even-strength play (Evolving Hockey). That’s the lowest number in the league, which means the fewest pucks made it through to the goaltender.

What that really tells you is what you probably saw just by watching a game last season. Jones and Dell were at many times the worst Sharks players on the ice and there were many times when the team won in spite of them, not because of them. But that’s an issue for another article.

Here, we’re talking about defense. For another team, I might highlight what the entire defensive corps would do, but I think we all know that for the Sharks, the defense starts and stops with three core players and everyone else is supporting cast.

Brent Burns and the Radim Simek Effect

Brent Burns is considered the best defenseman in the NHL, according to the NHL Network. He’s ranked number 9 on NHL Top Players list behind the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Patrick Kane and Connor McDavid. Burns is a beast to play against and has had 300-plus shots on net in each of the past three seasons. It’s easy to see why he’s considered an elite defensemen in the league.

Burns clocked nearly 200 more minutes of on-ice time than any other defenseman on the Sharks last season and still managed to put up good numbers.

Evolving-Hockey

This player chart from Evolving Hockey shows that Burns’ offensive capabilities more than make up for his defensive lapses. Burns is what we always knew him to be: an offensive defensema,n who needs a stay-at-home partner to balance his play.

And that’s where Radim Simek comes in.

Joakim Ryan was once effective alongside Burns, but failed to find that effectiveness again when the 2018-19 season started. It left the Sharks’ staff struggling to find someone else to play alongside the unpredictable Burns. Then Simek slotted in.

Evolving-Hockey

Keeping in mind that Simek was playing almost solely with Burns, his defensive numbers (shown here courtesy of Evolving Hockey) are the true test of his worth. Simek’s tough style of play and steady defensive effort allowed Burns to do what he does best, causing havoc in the offensive zone.

Erik Karlsson

Certainly not second-best, defenseman Erik Karlsson is number 24 on the NHL Top Players list. Karlsson is ranked lower than some would think and there’s good reason. The two-time Norris Trophy winner was hobbled by injury last season and only played 53 regular season games. He basically limped through the playoffs and still managed to put up 16 points in 19 games. ESPN isn’t worried about the injury and ranks Karlsson number 8 in its NHL’s top players list.

Evolving-Hockey

Karlsson’s numbers are insanely good — we’re talking literally off the charts. I mean, just look at his impact on offensive expected goals (“Off_xG”), the number of goals the team is expected to score when Karlsson is on the ice after adjusting for his context (teammates, opponents, game score and zone starts). It’s no wonder he’s a play driver that many teams were willing to toss a long-term, multi-million dollar contract at.

The Sharks are a force when Karlsson is healthy and off-season surgery to repair a groin injury was done to make sure he would be healthy this season. It is possible that at the end of the season, the Sharks will have two Norris Trophy candidates on the ballot.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic

If there’s one concern in the Sharks’ defensive pillars, it’s Vlasic. The 32-year-old is coming off a down season and I worry a little about his mental state.

Perhaps this is just the dramatic in me, but it seemed like Vlasic faltered last season when he found out that the Sharks had added another dynamic defenseman, pushing him further down the list. Vlasic did not thrive when Karlsson came into the locker room and, in fact, regressed. I wonder if missing out the an “A” to Karlsson will make things worse.

Evolving-Hockey

You can see it spelled out above. Vlasic was bad in every category, especially his impact on expected goals allowed (“Def_xG”). For comparisons, look at the 2017-18 season:

Evolving-Hockey

This is more in line with the Vlasic we’re hoping to see this season. Vlasic is given the tough defensive assignments. In 2017-18 he thrived and succeeded in those assignments, but in 2018-19 he crumbled.

The rest of the defense

When it comes to the rest of the defense, the only thing you can be sure of for opening night is Brenden Dillon. Dillon isn’t a defenseman that you write home about, but he’s solid, stable and reliable, making noticeable strides in his game over the last few seasons.

The aforementioned Simek would also have a spot in the lineup if he were healthy. Trouble is that no one’s sure that Simek (who injured his knee last season and had surgery to repair it) will be back and ready for opening night. Rest assured, when the team thinks he’s ready to go, Simek will slot into the lineup alongside Burns.

Tim Heed was signed to a one-year deal in the off-season and he was expected to take up that sixth D-man spot after Justin Braun was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers. However, Heed has not done himself any favors in the preseason and has left the coaches with a lot of second thoughts.

Dalton Prout was also signed in the off-season, and the coaches seem to be much happier with what he’s done in his preseason work. Prout may have done just enough to edge Heed out of the line-up for opening night.

And the dark horse in the mix is young Mario Ferraro. Coaches have been impressed with what Ferraro has done with his training camp so far and with Simek injured, Ferraro will likely be on the Sharks’ roster for opening night, though he may not get a chance to play. The number 49 pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft is still young and may need some more seasoning in the AHL before he makes his NHL debut. But he’s there, and Heed and Prout should both watch out.