The San Jose Sharks power play went on an extended hiatus, going 0-14 during a recent six game stretch. That began just one game after ending another 0-13, six game stretch. In the season’s first 17 games, the Sharks had only managed to score a power play goal in three games; just twice in winning efforts.
The slump placed the Sharks power play, one of the league’s most lethal over the past few years, into the 30th spot, worst in the league. The obvious cause of the slump was the loss of Logan Couture, a major contributor on a very balanced unit. Coach Peter DeBoer tried a number of players on the Sharks top unit to fill in for Couture. How hard could it be to score goals with Brent Burns, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau on the ice together with a man advantage? After all, those four players combined for over 1,100 career goals. Really, shouldn’t almost anyone be able to step onto a power play unit with that group and light the lamp often? Turns out, the answer is ‘no’.
Try, Try Again
It had gotten to the point where DeBoer had tried just about everyone that made sense to try on the top unit. So he started trying players for a second time. He found answer. He goes by the name of Marc-Edouard Vlasic. In the past two games, the Sharks have scored three power play goals, and Vlasic has played a major role in all three. Vlasic scored a goal on a point shot against Buffalo, enabled by a Patrick Marleau screen. Later in the game, Vlasic would continue his special team play, albeit not with a man advantage, ringing one off the inside of the post in 3-on-3 overtime. Marleau potted the rebound for his 998th career point.
Three nights later against Boston, Vlasic was a key part of two more power play goals. His shot from the high slot led to a rebound. Again the rebound went to Marleau, who scored his 999th career point from a similar location to where he’d scored his prior point. On the other power play goal, Vlasic did not get a point, but his quick pass was key in the beautiful tic-tac-toe-goal sequence in the video clip above. The goal turned out to be the game winner.
Why Vlasic Worked
I am not surprised that Vlasic appears to be the answer, at least until Couture returns. I am surprised that he failed to blossom earlier. Vlasic is considered a shut down defenseman, among the league’s best defenders. But reality is, the Sharks do fine with him on the ice on the offensive side of play. You can’t have a very positive plus-minus unless you are getting something from the plus side. Vlasic may have a modest shot, but he is an effective offensive player. My colleague Drew Weber recently did an analysis of the offensive production with the league’s top defensemen on the ice. Vlasic compared favorably with the league’s elite offensive defensemen, especially in areas like scoring chances. Vlasic can get a puck to the net. Just as importantly, he consistently makes the high percentage play. He excels in sealing the boards, pinching wisely and retrieving pucks, all useful skills on the power play.
Vlasic’s skill set has allowed him to work seamlessly with other players with little time needed for adjustment. For whatever reason, the adjustments Vlasic needed to make took a bit longer on the top power play unit and DeBoer moved on. Failing to solve the problem with other players, DeBoer returned to Vlasic. On the second go around, Vlasic clicked and the power play is lethal again.
DeBoer’s mantra about winning 5-on-5 play matters, but the power play makes a critical difference. The Sharks beat Buffalo 2-1 in overtime and Boston 5-4 in regulation. A continued outage on the power play would have meant two losses. Eight losses in 11 games had taken the Sharks from the top of the division to well out of a playoff spot. A record of 10-8 while riding a three game winning streak sounds better than a record of 8-10 and falling fast. It seems the Sharks have found an answer to their slump in an unsurprising place — their power play. The slump in the power play found an answer with Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Perhaps the player who helped it get back on track should not have been a surprise either.