What should the Sharks' defense pairings look like?
We break down which defense pairings have worked - and which ones haven't - for the Sharks this season.
The recent return of Brad Stuart to the Sharks lineup means the team has a healthy defense corps for the first time since prior to the Olympic break. Barring any further injuries, these are the seven defensemen—Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, Dan Boyle, Brad Stuart, Matt Irwin, Jason Demers and Scott Hannan—the Sharks will go to battle with when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin in three weeks. So now seems as good a time as any to break down which defense pairings have worked this season, which ones haven't and, ultimately, which pairings Todd McLellan and the San Jose coaching staff should open the postseason with.
Below is a look at every pair of Sharks defensemen who have spent at least 50 minutes on the ice together this season during 5-on-5 play. Listed are the goals the Sharks have scored and conceded with each pairing on the ice as well as the number of Corsi events (goals, shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots) for and against each duo. Most of the data is courtesy Hockey Analysis and it should go without saying that small sample caveats definitely apply. The table is sortable by each column:
|Left Defense||Right Defense||5v5 TOI||5v5 Goals For||5v5 Goals Against||5v5 Goals For%||5v5 corsi For||5v5 corsi Against||5v5 corsi For%|
The main takeaway here is that Marc-Edouard Vlasic has had an unbelievably good season. Regardless of who he's paired with five-on-five, the Sharks control at least 57.9% of all shot attempts with those two on the ice. To put that into perspective, no team in the NHL has been able to maintain a Corsi% that high over the course of the season. What makes Vlasic's performance even more impressive is that he starts more shifts in the defensive zone than he does at the attacking end of the ice and is matched up against opposing top lines on a nightly basis; he's chewing up tough minutes and spitting out dominant puck possession numbers like few other defensemen are capable of, regardless of who his partner is.
As excellent as Vlasic and Braun were together in the early stages of this season, there's an argument to be made that Vlasic and Demers, who the coaching staff has primarily used as its top pairing in recent weeks, have been even better. Regardless, the point is that when it comes to identifying which defensemen the Sharks ought to be pairing, Vlasic should be the least of anyone's concerns. Put him with any of the team's three right-shot defensemen and you have a bonafide top pair; it's slotting everyone else into place that could prove difficult.
On the flipside, Matt Irwin and Scott Hannan have dragged down most of the defensemen they've been paired with this season. This isn't all that surprising (they're pulling down seventh-defenseman salary for a reason) but I think it's pretty clear Dan Boyle's injury- and age-related decline has really had an adverse effect on Irwin. Those two are the Sharks' most frequent pairing this season, as they were a year ago, but their results have taken a tumble across the board. Last season, with Irwin and Boyle on the ice five-on-five, the Sharks controlled nearly 56% of all shot attempts and outscored opponents 17-15. This season, they've been outscored more than all but two other regular pairings and have seen their share of shot attempts dip to 52.1% despite favorable deployment.
Still, they've been better together than Hannan and Boyle have (those two were paired once again last night in Edmonton and had a dreadful game). At least based on the numbers above, I'm not sure it makes sense to put Hannan in the lineup unless he's going to be paired with Demers. Similarly, Irwin appears to be even more of a liability alongside anyone other than Boyle. This is why I thought the Sharks would be wise to add a left-side defenseman capable of stabilizing Boyle at the trade deadline but none of note ended up changing addresses. I don't think you can put too much stock into the ugly goals-for percentage with Irwin and Boyle; their defensive deficiencies are probably real (Irwin's brutal missed coverage on this Joe Colborne goal on Monday likely earned him the healthy scratch on Tuesday) but they've managed to stay on the positive side of the ledger in terms of shot attempts—albeit not by as much as you'd like given their minutes—meaning they're likely to do better in terms of goal difference going forward then they have to this point.
Going by Corsi% alone, the optimal pairings look like Vlasic/Braun, Stuart/Boyle and Hannan/Demers but I think there's reason to be skeptical that second pairing could be viable long-term. One hundred minutes isn't a lot of ice time and the fact that Stuart and Boyle's success together largely stems from a dominant showing (possession-wise, anyway...the Sharks ended up losing in a shootout) against the Phoenix Coyotes in early November means we should take their numbers with a substantial helping of salt. Both defensemen are well past their best-before date, to put it lightly; that, and the fact that the coaching staff hasn't paired them in four months suggest they wouldn't be as reliable together as the numbers here indicate. It wouldn't hurt to test them out again down the stretch here, as that tandem working would provide the inside track to icing three solid pairings, but I'll defer to Larry Robinson and company's wisdom that they aren't a great fit.
When taking into consideration context as well as needs on special teams (the penalty kill would be fine without Scott Hannan while the second-unit power play would likely be even more of a lost cause without Matt Irwin), I think the pairings the Sharks deployed against Calgary on Monday are pretty close to their ideal blueline. Vlasic and Demers have been nails of late, Stuart and Braun have been surprisingly terrific this season and, while Irwin and Boyle are a far cry from what they were a year ago, you could do worse for a third pairing (like, say, Hannan and Boyle). Ultimately, the Sharks only have enough depth on the back end to ice two solid pairings and they're obviously better off having those be their two most-used tandems rather than their first and third.