Player Power Rankings Week 24: Nine to noon, non-stop Vlasic rock

Livin’ in a world gone plastic.

Welcome to Fear the Fin’s weekly(ish) player power rankings. Who had the biggest impact, the best goals or the prettiest smile in the week that was and who you should totally grab off of waivers in your fantasy league to stick it to Derek in accounts receivable. All rankings subject to the whims of fate and whatever we’re feeling in the moment.

The San Jose Sharks have been winning so many games lately that their loss of two in a row to close out this week feels like the sky is falling. With the Calgary Flames just one point ahead of the Sharks atop the Pacific division, the importance of avoiding a first round series with the Vegas Golden Knights is clearly apparent.

Let’s talk about something else, then.

As of this writing, only three teams have been mathematically eliminated from postseason contention (Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils), but an additional nine are five or more points out with two or more teams to pass to reach the second wild card in their conferences. Those teams are, barring a historic and improbable series of events, finished, and their fans are looking forward, past the party to which they’re tragically not invited, to the draft and the NHL awards.

At this point, the question is on all of our minds, dear reader, not just yours: who will take home the coveted Mark Messier Leadership Award? You weren’t thinking of that one? Right, the other one: can Brent Burns win another Norris Trophy?

Burns’ offensive resume is unimpeachable, as it is most years: the giant leads the Sharks in scoring, and his 74 points are tops among all defensemen and 24th best among all NHL skaters (Morgan Rielly is the next highest defenseman, 33rd with 68), and his 263 shots on goal are seventh (Roman Josi is the next blueliner at tenth with 251). That puts Burns on pace for 84 points in an 82 game season (the veteran is unlikely to miss time down the stretch: he’s played 461 consecutive appearances) and 300 shots. If he keeps up that pace, Burns’ 84 points will be the most from a defenseman since Brian Leetch scored 85 in 1995-96, and the last defender to top this pace in both goals and shots was Ray Bourque in 1993-94.

What’s more, Burns’ score- and venue-adjusted shot-attempt share of 57.46 percent at 5-on-5 is seventh among all skaters and fourth among all defensemen who’ve played at least 900 minutes. None of the six players ahead of him on that list (including two fellow Sharks: Erik Karlsson and Brenden Dillon) have played more than 1170 minutes at 5-on-5, Burns has played over 1300.

So Burns has history on his side, will that be enough to beat out the only real contenders remaining at this point in the season? Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames has been a front-runner for this award since just about July and, despite being pretty universally well-regarded, has yet to receive a Norris nomination. Giordano is second in the league in plus/minus (I know, and I agree with you, but voters seem to value it), and sits just behind Burns in shot-attempt share. What’s more, Giordano’s 67 points are already sixth-best among all defensemen in an age 35 or older season, and he’ll probably pass Sergei Zubov’s 71 points for third before the season is out.

Last, Rielly of the Toronto Maple Leafs has made a strong case lately, but might be dropping out of the race as the Leafs struggle to hold onto points while the season winds down. His point totals are gaudy, second among defenseman with 68, but his possession stats leave a bit to be desired: Rielly’s adjusted shot-attempt share at 5-on-5 of 51.19 is 14th among his own teammates and his offensive zone start percentage of 51.05 is not low enough to explain it away.

Essentially, Brent Burns is this race’s Olivia Colman: he doesn’t really fit the award’s criteria as he’s barely a defenseman anyway, but he’s nominated and is probably the most likely to win based on prior winners. Giordano is Glenn Close: this may not be his best performance, but he’s been so good for so long it might just be his turn. And Rielly is clearly Lady Gaga: the new kid who came out of nowhere with a strong performance and a huge community backing him, but he’s kind of fumbling the dismount.

Speaking of defensemen ...

1. Marc-Edouard Vlasic

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This Week415640453.71

With six points in four games this week, Marc-Edouard Vlasic led the Sharks in scoring (not something that will happen often) and it wasn’t particularly close. Helped in no small part by a three-point effort during the Sharks’ pulse pounding win over the Winnipeg Jets, Vlasic seems to have recovered his old self again (and then some) after missing time to injury earlier this season. Perhaps sharing ice time with the Swedish sniper Tim Heed has started to rub off on the veteran. Whatever the reason, Vlasic is rounding into the form the Sharks will need come the second season.

Everything about this play is beautiful, unless you’re a Jets fan, in which case I expect it’s excruciating. Vlasic pounced on an ill-advised cross ice pass from Nikolaj Ehlers intended for Andrew Copp at just the right angle to spring Timo Meier and Joe Pavelski for the dagger. Key to the play was Vlasic’s edge work before the pass even started. As Vlasic was cruising toward the net, he noticed his brethren closing in on Ehlers at the half wall and planted his right skate, pushing up high just far enough to get a stick on the pass. It marked San Jose’s sixth straight win and the perfect completion of what appeared to be a particularly nasty road back-to-back.

2. Gustav Nyquist

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
Season (DET, SJS)71193453371218758.76
This Week421324963.26

At this point, the Goose is almost assuredly loose. Once again, Nyquist led all Sharks skaters  who played all four games in adjusted shot attempt share this week, no doubt owing some of that magic to the domination of his line with Evander Kane and Tomas Hertl on Saturday against the Nashville Predators. Adding in two goals in Winnipeg a few days earlier, and the swift Swede seems to be rapidly adapting to his new environment.

Most of Nyquist’s successes on the box score this week have come from driving the net. As all of the cliche-ridden coaches say: “go to the net and good things happen,” and Goose seems to have taken that advice to heart. Tomas Hertl was driving the net already here, and Nyquist made his first smart decision by reading Hertl’s cut toward the middle and delaying his own zone entry to stay onside. As Hertl turned poor Nathan Beaulieu into a pretzel person, Nyquist drove into the crease to support. Nyquist’s receipt of Hertl’s pass was excellent, reaching behind himself on the backhand to get the puck on net and past Connor Hellebuyck.

3. Timo Meier

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This Week4123321254.88

Last week: 1

Timo Meier continues to sneak into our homes in the dead of night and abscond with our hearts. Meier’s assist on Hertl’s goal in Minnesota on Monday was his 100th NHL point and, with another apple on Pavelski’s winner the next night in Winnipeg, he capped off a five-goal, seven-assist, seven-game point streak. His goal at home against the Nashville Predators on Saturday started a brand new one that, if we know Timo, will take us right through to the parade.

Meier may be one of the best pure skaters on the Sharks’ roster this year. This assist was a great example of how Meier uses his posture deceptively to create space for his teammates. As Meier moved toward the net, he waited for defender Jared Spurgeon to over-commit to defending his rush before pivoting hard on his right foot to open up for the pass. The quick slick stick moves from Hertl are an afterthought for now, but they really are something, aren’t they?

4. Joe Thornton

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This Week412332856.14

Last week: 3

We’ll get right to it: this time it was points and games played. With two assists in Winnipeg, Joe Thornton passed Stan Mikita for 13th most all time points, currently at 1470 (!). This week also saw the big man pass Jarome Iginla for 13th all time NHL games played, having now played 1556 (!!) It cannot be overstated, he is very super great, you guys.

If the space behind the net is Wayne Gretzky’s office, it’s Joe Thornton’s playground. What made this particular venture back there so effective was how Thornton and Marcus Sorensen played with Hellebuyck’s expectations of what was about to happen to him. Thornton went behind the net to Hellebuyck’s left with speed, forcing the goalie to move to his right to respect the wrap around. Thornton doubled back, passing the puck on his forehand out to Sorensen, forcing the keeper to move back left to prevent a short side tuck in goal. Finally, Sorensen completed the deception of the goaltending magician by shooting far side before the latter had the chance to move back to his right. The prestige!

5. Brent Burns

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This Week4011121362.04

We’ve covered Burns’ historic accomplishments this season above, so we won’t belabor the point, except to say that Brent Burns is about as close as we’re likely to get to a Canadian Toshiro Mifune and we should be savoring that.

This is just as much a Thornton highlight as a Burns one, but they’re kind of all Thornton highlights, are they not? Burns is a very large man, and his ability to impose his physical will on the game is regularly demonstrated, but rarely so well as his bullying of Mikael Granlund here. As Burns turned toward the Nashville net, he was essentially playing chicken with Granlund, who fell back out of the way, giving the big man plenty of time to feather a pass through to the waiting Thornton, who was no doubt pleased to be on the receiving end of one of these for once.

Hono(u)rable mentions

Joe Pavelski: The Sharks captain blew us all away with that game winner in Winnipeg. The way he was able to put the puck just over Hellebuyck’s shoulder out of the air was nothing short of incredible.

Joonas Donskoi: Donskoi has struggled recently, no doubt, but being healthy scratched on the night that your bobblehead seemed particularly petty.

Logan Couture: After being hooked from behind on a breakaway by defenseman Anthony Bitetto, Couture converted a beautiful penalty shot in Minnesota, pretty much the way he always does: skating in slowly and launching a blistering wrist shot so fast it goes back in time and scores on the goaltender’s parents.