It’s time to find Vlasic a new partner

Vlasic and Braun have been regular partners for a while, but Braun’s numbers have started to plummet, and it might be worth trying out a new partner for the Sharks’ #1 shutdown defenseman.

Before I start, I want to point you toward an article at The Athletic about Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s 2016-17 season. Last year Vlasic had, by almost any measure, a bad season. Tyler Dellow describes his theory that DeBoer’s constant pursuit of matchups led to the big dip in Vlasic’s shot-based numbers last season. I don’t want to spoil the article. Check it out.

Bizarre, matchup-based deployment might explain most of Vlasic’s numbers. Some of the change in his numbers might even be due to him beginning to decline. However, I would hazard a guess that Braun, Vlasic’s regular defense partner since about the 2013-14 season, also shoulders some blame.

Thanks to @Dellowhockey and @TheAthleticSF, we have this chart of shot attempts against the Sharks when Vlasic was on the ice during an on-the-fly shift (a shift that did not start with a faceoff) last season:

You can see that there are far more shots coming from the goalie’s right side - the side Justin Braun plays. Braun’s shot-based numbers were sure to take a tumble due to the same matchup-seeking because he has been attached to Vlasic’s hip. However, if you look at Braun’s ability to influence the Sharks’ shot volume, you can see it has been falling steadily. (The charts in the following gifs are from @MimicoHero’s site. He attempts to isolate individuals’ players contributions to their teams’ shot-based metrics).

Braun’s shot suppression is still about level with #2 defenders, which is a good sign. But his shot generation numbers have been falling as his ice time has risen. Contrast that animation with Vlasic’s own shot-impact numbers over a similar time frame.

Vlasic’s shot-based numbers are still largely #1 defenseman-esque. Here are the two side-by-side. At the bottom of the chart you can see the progression of each player’s ability to impact the proportion of shots the Sharks control.

Both Vlasic and Braun’s ability to influence the Sharks’ shots took a dip after last season’s ridiculous matchup-based deployment. However, you can see that, despite playing similar competition under about the same deployment since 2013, Braun’s numbers have been gradually falling, while Vlasic’s have remained solid.

Shot-based numbers are important because they predict future goals. However, recent research suggests that expected goals (xG) models might do a better job of predicting future goals. Expected goals models have led to the birth of goals above replacement (GAR) and wins above replacement (WAR) models to help further isolate players’ individual abilities. Stephen Burtch looks at expected GAR and tries to predict what they might look like in the future. Below are Braun and Vlasic’s:

Based on last year’s numbers and these projections, Vlasic would rank as the league’s 8th-best defenseman with a future trajectory that does not appear to be in for a tumble any time soon. By that same metric, Braun ranks 84th. That’s a low-end #3 defenseman, whose ability to positively impact play is falling quickly.

The interesting note for Vlasic and Braun is that @MannyElk’s WAR model (which seems to weigh offense more heavily than that of @DTMaboutheart’s model, used in the above projections) and @EvolvingWild’s weighted points above replacement (wPAR) model sink both Vlasic and Braun’s ratings compared to the rest of NHL defensemen. This isn’t a huge surprise; neither player is known for his offense.

What we have so far is:

  • Vlasic and Braun’s shot-based numbers took a dip last season due to DeBoer’s matchup-seeking strategy.
  • However, Braun’s shot-based numbers have been falling pretty steadily, even when paired with Vlasic.
  • While Vlasic remains a top-pairing defender by most metrics, Braun’s numbers seem to be falling out of the top-4 range quickly.
  • (EDIT). This is a silly thought/worded poorly. The way DeBoer deploys Vlasic means that probably any player they pair with Vlasic will show similar numbers. But maybe a Braun replacement could help the two do a better job of producing offense during on-the-fly shifts and when they get opportunities in the offensive zone.  Neither player is very good at producing offense, which, you know, is required to score goals. This isn’t a huge issue if the top pair will be used strictly in a shut down role. However, scoring more goals is a result of being able to drive play, which is never a bad skill for a defender to have. /

With both players (and the Sharks’ entire top-4, for that matter) on the wrong side of NHL defenders’ prime years, the Sharks would be wise to reshuffle the deck chairs this season to see what younger players have to offer.

Generally speaking, good teams tend to do well when they can play skaters in roles that are below their pay grade. Take the Penguins, for example. The ability to play Crosby and Malkin — two of the league’s best centers — and Phil Kessel, another top-flight forward, on different lines has allowed them to exploit matchups other teams cannot. Moving Braun down to the second or even third pairing would put him in a role for which he is mostly overqualified, thus improving the entire defense corps’ impact on the game.

One solution to this problem might be to pair Vlasic with Burns. Based on player types, the combination of Vlasic and Burns should be able to produce more goals for the Sharks than that of Vlasic and Braun. Of course, if DeBoer continues to pit Vlasic against other teams’ top forwards, pairing him with Burns would limit Burns’ ability to play mostly offensive hockey.

Another solution could be to try someone like Tim Heed up top with Vlasic. While Heed is actually old by NHL aging curve standards, he might be able to offer some more offensive support for the team’s top pairing.

Julius Bergman is a right-handed shot on the right side of aging curves. He might be able to offer something to the team’s top pairing Braun cannot. At the very least, Bergman is a player on his way up (age-wise) vs. Braun, a skater whose numbers are very much on their way down.

Nick DeSimone impressed during the Barracuda’s playoff run last season. He is also another right-handed shot who is still ascending. Of course, we’d all love Jeremy Roy to make an impact this season, but coming back from a major knee injury means he may not make it out of the AHL this year.

The larger point is that Braun might drop below top-pairing ability this season, if he hasn’t already. If DeBoer plans to continue pitting his top pair against some of the toughest competition in the league, the team would be wise to see who else might be able to fill Braun’s shoes. Finding an ascending (or simply different) partner for Vlasic with more offensive potential, while moving Braun farther down the lineup seems as though it would be a good way to improve the roster without dipping into the free agent pool or giving up a player or draft picks in a trade.

What do you think?

Should the Sharks Try to Find Vlasic a New Partner?

Yes, Braun should move down the lineup216
No, Braun and Vlasic are fine as a top pairing105