SAN JOSE- The San Jose Sharks have been a juggernaut of squad for years now. Sure they have yet to reach the pinnacle of a Stanley Cup championship but 12 playoff births in the past 13 seasons (including seven straight) is quite impressive.
Eleven series victories, six Pacific Division titles and three Western Conference finals appearances over that span means San Jose has done quite a bit of winning.
And when you consider that two of those three conference final appearances these past two seasons, one may have forecasted a rather quiet offseason heading into the 2011-12 season.
But for as impressive as the Sharks have been in recent years, most of those campaigns featured a less than impressive group of blue-liners.
With that in mind, Sharks GM Doug Wilson elected to boost his defense by trading for Wild defenseman Brent Burns and signing veteran free agents Colin White and Jim Vandermeer this past offseason.
While White and Vandermeer add depth, it is Burns’ presence which added supreme talent to a unit that has been rather underwhelming the last couple of seasons.
Once news had broken this summer about the Burns deal, fans and experts alike, and even Sharks head coach Todd McLellan were coming up with defense pairs to put on paper.
“When you get new people in, especially three defenseman in Vandermeer, White and Burns, you sit down in the middle of the summer and think left shot, right shot, you think of size, you think of puck moving, you think of defending and all of a sudden you come up with pairs.”
The popular summer pairing idea of Burns with Marc-Edouard Vlasic has yet to really come to fruition but currently the two are both playing excellent hockey with different and unlikely partners.
Burns is now playing mostly alongside fellow right handed puck mover Jason Demers and Vlasic has been playing with Dan Boyle even though Boyle had been paired almost exclusively with Douglas Murray the last few seasons.
But McLellan was quite to point out summer pairs don’t always work out for whatever reason.
“It doesn’t always work that way” added McLellan about his original pairs on paper. “It’s about reading each other, it’s about being comfortable with each other on the ice. We’ve had to move and shuffle people around. We’re slowly finding some comfort in pairs.”
San Jose is 7-1-1 in their last nine games and have allowed just 16 goals in that span, less than two per game on average.
The goaltending has certainly been strong but thanks to the efforts of Burns and Vlasic in particular, the Sharks are currently featuring arguably their best blue-line core in their history.
Boyle and Burns are the big names, but Vlasic is one of the most underrated defenseman in the league. Considered a defensive defenseman, Vlasic has 17 points on the season and is a whopping plus-19. Better numbers than some of the defenseman chosen to play in the All Star Game.
In terms of positioning, Vlasic is one of the tops in the game but is he the best of the best?
“There’s some pretty good defenseman in the league” commented McLellan. “I can think of Shea Weber and Nicklas Lidstrom and those types of guys that are very capable defenders but [Vlasic] is a very detailed defenseman. I always talk about his stamina, the ability to be on the ice for long periods of time. If he can’t get off [the ice on an ideal shift] he’s still positioned well, very good stick, defends properly and this year we’ve even seen a little bit of offensive flair from him”.
As for Burns, the first year Shark has looked out of place at times as he adjusts to a new team and system (which can often take much longer than half a season) but during this recent stretch Burns has seemed to have better acclimated his game to San Jose’s puck possession style.
“You can see he’s more confident and he fits in a little better as the year goes on” referenced McLellan on Burns. “He’s played with just about everybody so he’s adapted to their games and I think he has a better understanding of where the forwards might be now. [Better understanding] of our terminology, how we want to play, he’s really settling in as a Shark.”
With these two elite defenseman playing the way they are on separate pairs, it has allowed younger, less experienced defenseman in Jason Demers and Justin Braun to play with strong, more veteran players.
Both Burns (Demers’ partner) and Murray (Braun’s current partner) abilities help the younger players find their ice.
Demers and Braun both like to shoot the puck and both the veteran awareness and pure size of Burns and Murray allows the two younger D-men more room to maneuver with the puck and make plays in the offensive zone and on the breakout.
Vandermeer and White still add depth and both should be available to rejoin the lineup relatively soon but with Vlasic and Burns playing as well as they are on their separate pairs, it is currently a hard blue-line core to crack in terms of playing time.
Too many defenders? Perhaps so, but it’s certainly a welcomed “problem” for McLellan and the Sharks.