It took a while for this writer to realize it, but Marc-Edouard Vlasic struggled this season. A bad season wouldn’t necessarily be cause for alarm, if there were plausible explanations for the down year being an aberration. But Vlasic turned 32 in March and his performance looks like it’s another data point in a trend line going the wrong direction.
Wins or goals above replacement (W/GAR), like any statistic, is never going to be perfect. This version of WAR looks mostly at a player’s ability to influence goals on offense and limit expected goals against on defense. It isolates individual player performances from that of his surroundings to identify what that one player is contributing to his team. Even without knowing what this chart was mapping, a quick glance shows a fairly clear arc, beginning with Vlasic’s rookie season in 2007-08 and culminating with this disaster of a season. The 2018-19 season represents, for now, the end of a stark drop from his late-career peak during the 2015-16 season.
There is some reason to believe Vlasic bounces back a bit next year. He did a solid job of breaking up zone entries, though this season’s sample size of tracked games isn’t large enough to be considered a stable estimation of his contribution in that area. During the playoffs, he seemed to improve somewhat upon his regular season output. Using Corsica’s relative-to-teammate metrics (a precursor to Evolving Wild’s WAR and RAPM measures), we can compare how well he drove play compared to his teammates.
During the regular season, Vlasic’s 5-on-5 shot share relative to his teammates was 23 of 25 skaters on the team who played at least 50 minutes. During the playoffs, Vlasic helped the Sharks control shot share at the 12th best rate of 20 playoff skaters. Vlasic’s impact on expected goals relative to his teammates was the team’s third-worst mark; during the playoffs, he rose to the occasion, turning in the team’s fifth-best expected goal share relative to his teammates.
More potentially promising were Vlasic’s results in the facets of play on which this WAR calculation focuses. During the regular season, Vlasic held the 23rd-best mark (of 25 skaters) in terms of expected goals against relative to his teammates. During the playoffs, he held the team’s seventh-best mark. Before April, Vlasic’s impact on offensive goals for relative to his teammates was the 17th-best performance on the team. When the calendar flipped to the playoffs, he performed as the 10th-best skater of 20 in that capacity.
Statistically, Vlasic had the worst season of his career. Despite what appeared to be improvement during the playoffs, it’s difficult to say anything other than Vlasic is a player in clear decline who may even be operating at or near replacement level.
However, Vlasic was injured for part of the season and played with an Erik Karlsson who, while he was fresh to the team, took some time to adjust to the new system and group of players. Keen observers of the game felt that while he certainly struggled to begin the season, his play looked much improved as the calendar turned from winter to spring.
Vlasic seemed to defer too much to Karlsson when the two were paired early in the season. He appeared reluctant to make himself an outlet option for teammates advancing the puck up ice or work to win pucks in his own end. Midway through the first round series against the Vegas Golden Knights, Vlasic appeared to have recovered a bit from his poor start, flashing his defensive ability while helping to silence the Mark Stone line during the series’ final few games.
Vlasic's patience with the puck, absorbing #VegasBorn forecheck & making his D partner's life easier, was on full display in Game 5.— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) April 20, 2019
More here on how Vlasic & Burns were able to slow the rolling Stone line --> https://t.co/bAoeNe4ZtY pic.twitter.com/Ezx6yzzkd1
We might debate whether or not Vlasic’s difficult year was a result of external factors or just natural age-related decline. It’s difficult to argue against the fact this was his worst year as an NHL player, a fact made even more lurid by his recently signed eight-year contract. The Sharks should be worried about his play, even if he bounced back a bit in April, and that assertion is non-negotiable.
Career Summary (via HockeyViz)
Though known for his defense, Vlasic spent the better part of his later 20s scoring primary points at the rate of a first-pair defender. The dip in production and playing time this season are more evidence the long-tenured defender had a difficult go of it this past year. Vlasic’s uptick in production is another potentially promising sign that he was able to put something behind him as the year drew to a close, but the time of Vlasic as a number-one shutdown defender is all but over.
RAPM Chart (via Evolving Hockey)
When someone known for defense fails to prevent shots and expected goals against his team, red flags fly. When he is not just mediocre, but downright bad in those departments, the apocalypse nears. The performance is quite a departure from even his 2017-18 self, when Vlasic’s defensive impact was greater than one standard deviation above that of league-average. The difference between last season and this is a reminder that a player’s playing ability can slide out from under him in a moment’s notice. If Vlasic isn’t at least able to hold serve while defending next season, his contract may be something Doug Wilson and Co. attempt to move, one way or another.
Well played by Heed and especially Vlasic pic.twitter.com/RDKSl7ALss— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) March 23, 2019
Highlight-reel plays aren’t exactly Vlasic’s thing. He’s more likely to be shown picking his nose on the bench between faceoffs than he is to find himself on SportsCenter replays after an end-to-end rush — which is why this gif so encapsulates what’s made him who he is during his career.
First, Vlasic uses his excellent stick skills to break up the aerial pass. Then, his awareness is ever-present as he recognizes Heed has returned to the zone and picked up the skater with the puck. Vlasic stops his advance and turns his attention back to the open Duck, ultimately kicking the puck harmlessly to Jones for an easy cover up. It’s these types of plays that Vlasic’s made night in and night out — typically with little to no fanfare — that have made him such a stout defender.
What comes next?
Vlasic signed an eight-year, $56 million deal last season. When it ends, he’ll be 37. Between the upcoming Seattle expansion draft, potential compliance buyouts after collective bargaining agreement litigation and the likelihood the Sharks’ championship window is at or near its end, it’s unlikely Vlasic finishes his contract as a Shark. The organization is likely to ride out his services for a few more seasons, at least while they feel this core of players can lead a long playoff run. But between his performance this season and the cost the team must incur to keep him long-term, Vlasic is going to struggle to hold onto his playing time.