San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been extremely valuable and among the league’s best defenders the last decade. He doesn’t show up on offensive lists, but he’s been the league’s premier shutdown defenseman for years. Despite going against the league’s best offensive forwards and starting primarily in the defensive zone, he has tilted the ice in San Jose’s direction. At least until this season.
Beginning in the 2008-09 season, Vlasic carved out a decade where he was a plus-137 in total and was a plus-player every season. For reference, Sidney Crosby, taken in the same draft as Vlasic, was a plus-138 and Vlasic’s teammate Joe Thornton was a plus-99 in the same time frame. It’s elite company. When the Sharks went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016, Vlasic led the Sharks with a plus-14 rating in the postseason.
Vlasic, By the Numbers
This season, Vlasic sits at a team-worst minus-15. This is tied for seventh-worst in the league and lowest among players whose team is in a playoff spot. And while scoring has never been his primary role, he did have 11 goals, including 10 at even strength last season, but just one this season. In 2017-18, he finished with 32 points. Through 40 games this season, he has 10 points.
In his last five seasons, he’s averaged 29 points per 75 games, with a low of 23 points in a season he missed a dozen games. He’s on-pace for 20 this season, even though he’s played every game.Even the fancy stats aren’t giving him much slack. His Corsi for rating is 50.22 percent at five-on-five play, just ahead of primary partner Justin Braun’s 49.65 percent. These are the two lowest Corsi ratings on the team.
Some blame Braun for Vlasic’s decline as Braun hasn’t had a good season either. But a little digging adds some clarity. The Vlasic-Braun duo have a Corsi for of 46 percent, much worse than the 59 percent Corsi for when Vlasic is paired with Erik Karlsson. But the goals for percentages are nearly identical. With Braun as Vlasic’s partner, it is 40 percent, while with Karlsson it’s worse, at 38 percent. Even when the Corsi is good, the goal scoring results aren’t.
Some other troubling data points:
• The Karlsson-Brenden Dillon pairing has been on the ice for 20 Sharks goals and only 13 against, again at five-on-five play. The Sharks control 60 percent of the goals with the Karlsson-Dillon pair on the ice. With the Karlsson-Vlasic pair on the ice, it’s six goals for and 11 against, just 35 percent.
• Braun’s plus/minus is even when paired with Brent Burns or Dillon, yet minus-seven with Vlasic.
• The Sharks have rolled nine different defense pairings for a minimum of 50 minutes this season. Three of the nine involve Vlasic and they are the three worst plus-minus ratings among the Sharks’ defensive pairings. Normalizing plus-minus for ice time ranks Braun as Vlasic’s best partner.
The Vlasic Problem Theory List
So why is Vlasic a team-worst minus-15 this season? Theories abound. Below is a list of comments I’ve heard or seen among Sharks analysts.
• He’s hurt
• He’s having chemistry trouble with the addition of Karlsson
• He’s lost his motivation
• He wasn’t in shape to start the season
• He’s got too many miles on him
• He’s upset with less ice time
• It’s really his partners, especially Braun
• Something is wrong off the ice
I’d be surprised if it wasn’t injury-related because it’s the only one which adds up. Whether this is a career issue or a seasonal one, I have no real insight.
Transitions, where he has been superb for so long, are the main problem. His quick, powerful initial strides usually allowed him to get into position ahead of opponents when defending against the rush. These strides seem slower and more deliberate this season. I’ve also noticed a tendency for him to reach on plays he’d normally get his body into position. People will say Vlasic’s skating looks solid, but my sense is he’s still fine skating forward, which is what most people notice. It’s the quick backwards and twisting movements that are an issue.
The Corsi Question
If Vlasic is slowed by some ailment, he’d be most vulnerable against faster teams. The two fastest teams the Sharks have played this season are the Toronto Maple Leafs (twice) and Vegas Golden Knights (once). Vlasic was a minus player in all three games and a combined minus-six. We see him struggling in fast transitions.
Quick-strike shots are much more dangerous than shots coming off set offenses against set defenses. Vlasic’s been on the ice for far too many odd-man rushes and quick-strike goals against the Sharks. These occur only a few times a game so it is only a small portion of what Corsi measures, but these fast-break shots are more likely to turn into a goals than shots against a set defense.
He is still solid in set defenses and this is most of what Corsi measures. This explains why he has a good Corsi but a bad plus/minus while paired with Karlsson and a poor Corsi yet a similar plus/minus when paired with Braun. Corsi does a poor job of reflecting the issues with Vlasic’s game.
It’s tempting to report that he’s already committed more stick fouls this season than he did all of last season. And while it’s true, it points to an aspect of Vlasic’s game which hasn’t diminished. He’s committed one stick penalty this season after committing none last season, when he left the team shorthanded just three times. He remains focused and disciplined. This isn’t what one expects from a player who is upset or insufficiently motivated. It’s the sign of a craftsman who is working hard at his craft.
The signs point to a player whose body isn’t responding as it has in the past. The focus and discipline are there, if only the body could accommodate. We’ve seen plenty of players struggle through injury-riddled seasons only to learn the truth after the fact. I suspect this is what is going on with him.
Dealing With Vlasic
An unfortunate part of this is that the Sharks’ coaching staff seems determined to ride Vlasic no matter what. Head coach Peter DeBoer could roll out defensive pairings of Burns/Radim Simek, Karlsson/Dillon and Joakim Ryan/Braun or Tim Heed. The first two pairs have been excellent with Dillon in particular having a brilliant season, and the third pair should be more than able to hold its own in modest minutes.
Vlasic could get some added rest without being an ongoing liability. Maybe rest won’t help, but the Sharks can’t afford to keep rolling him out while he is struggling this much. But I can’t see DeBoer making this change, if for no other reason than that he doesn’t trust Ryan.
It is unfortunate DeBoer appears not to have a contingency plan because the near future will be a major challenge. We’ll see Vlasic tested mightily in the Sharks’ next three games. All are against speedy teams, the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning. Unless something got improved over the Christmas break, these next few games may not be pretty.
Can Vlasic return to form? If he’s injured and gets healthy, sure. If he’s having attitude issues, again, sure. If it is something in the locker room? Once again, solvable. Could it be something away from the ice? Of course such things play into players’ lives and can affect their play, but we aren’t privy to this, and for the most part, shouldn’t be, so I’ll leave this alone.
The only long-term issue is if Vlasic’s mileage is catching up to him as the sum total of NHL wear-and-tear has taken an irreversible toll. But it is tough to believe that he’s on a steep decline without something more going on in the season immediately following a strong campaign.
At some point, I expect we’ll see the return of Vlasic to his usual elite form. Whether that happens this season is unclear. For the Sharks to get into the playoffs and make a deep run, they need a defenseman to play better than the Vlasic we’ve seen thus far this season. Whether it is an improved Vlasic or someone else, the situation needs to change.
• Erik Karlsson started the season slowly and was minus-11 through Dec. 1. During these struggles, we noted he had to re-wire his game for San Jose. There’s no doubt he’s done this and he’s crossed into positive plus/minus territory. His plus-five game against the Oilers on Saturday moved him to plus-two for the season and a plus-13 in his last dozen games.