San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic is one of the most overlooked players in the NHL. He was recently left out of the NHL Network’s Top 20 Defensemen list, as our Zeke pointed out recently. Die-hard Sharks fans have always praised Vlasic’s game (as does Team Canada) and there hasn’t been a more important player to the Sharks in the last 10 years. Since the 2009-10 season, the Sharks have recorded a 25-31 record (44.64% win percentage) without Vlasic in the lineup and a 302-218 (58.08% win percentage) record with him in the lineup.
Let’s address the first thought that probably comes to mind after reading that last sentence. It’s easy to say that Joe Thornton has been the most important player for the Sharks since he arrived in 2005, but defense is what wins games. Vlasic plays against the opposing team’s best players every night and continually shuts down the best offensive players in the world. When Thornton is out of the lineup, there are other players who have stepped up and helped replace his offensive production by committee. However, when Vlasic is out of the lineup there, has never been a player that can replace his ability to defend the world’s greatest players. More on this later.
Vlasic first entered the league in 2006 at only 19 years old. He spent his entire rookie year in the NHL and played all but one game. In Vlasic’s first few seasons, he got to learn from experienced veterans like Scott Hannan, Craig Rivet, Rob Blake, and Dan Boyle, who all offered a different aspect that the young defenseman could learn. It didn’t take long for Vlasic to have the confidence of a seasoned vet and develop into a premier defender in the NHL.
Why Is Vlasic so Effective as a Defender?
For starters, he doesn’t make mistakes. As a defenseman, if you don’t make mistakes, then you are never playing catch-up during a shift. From breakout passes to one-on-one defense there is rarely a mistake. Vlasic doesn’t make flashy breakout passes, but he gets the puck where it needs to be and allows his forwards to do what they do best.
One-on-one, there might not be a better defenseman in the league. Vlasic is extremely patient and never lunges at an attacker but waits for them to make the first move. His stick is always in the right place and more often than not the puck ends up hitting his stick when an opponent tries to maneuver around him. Being a great one-on-one defender is only part what makes Vlasic special but it’s only the beginning.
Off the puck, Vlasic is always in the right place. His stick occupies the highest scoring chance passing lane at all times and this forces opposing forwards to attempt plays that are more likely to result in a turnover. Despite starting 54.5% of his shifts in the defensive zone, Vlasic still has a positive career Corsi-for of 52.1%. All of this is against the opponent’s top line on a nightly basis.
There are certainly higher Corsi stats in the league, but those players aren’t playing the hard minutes that Vlasic is playing. A defenseman like him isn’t supposed to have the puck either. He’s supposed to keep the other team’s best players on the perimeter and away from high-scoring areas. Stats can’t paint the full picture for Vlasic’s game but watching one game will show how good he is.
How is Vlasic More Valuable than Joe Thornton?
As touched on earlier, Vlasic is more valuable to the Sharks than Thornton. This isn’t to take away anything from Thornton and the value he brings to the Sharks. He is an easy choice for second most valuable to Vlasic in the last decade. Defense wins championships is a cliche for a reason and Vlasic’s abilities on the backend are what have kept the Sharks in the championship conversation during seasons that they should have never been mentioned.
A high-octane offensive player is nothing without a great defense and the most recent example of this is last season’s Edmonton Oilers. Connor McDavid registered his second 100-plus point season and claimed the Art Ross Trophy for the second time in as many years only to see his team miss the playoffs entirely. It doesn’t matter how many goals are scored if the puck can’t be kept out of the back of your own net.
Vlasic’s value amongst Sharks fans was solidified in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs after he was forced from the lineup in the first round due to a questionable play by Jarret Stoll. The Sharks were already on their heels despite holding a 3-1 lead in the series at the time of the injury. Vlasic was forced to miss Games 6 and 7 of the series and the rest is well-known history. The Sharks didn’t stand a chance without their best defender against a surging Kings squad.
Heading into the 2018-19 season, Vlasic is expected to shut down the best players every night once again. He’s entering the first year of an eight-year $56 million contract that he signed last summer and there is no indication that he is slowing down. His game relies on brains and as long as that stays sharp, he will remain the league’s best defensive defenseman for years to come. Just ask his gold medal-winning and World Cup winning Team Canada defense partner, Drew Doughty.