SAN JOSE- They may not be Pronger and Niedermayer nor are they comparable to the Suter and Weber Nashville days but the San Jose Sharks shut down pair of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun could be prime to start building a significant reputation across the NHL.
Vlasic, (26), having played at the NHL level since he was 19, is widely considered to be one of the best, if not the best defenseman—in the true sense of the word—in the entire NHL.
During last year’s shortened season, Vlasic finally found a new consistent defense partner in Braun, also 26, who after a couple of years being in and out of the lineup has finally cemented himself firmly in the Sharks defense.
Including last regular season and playoffs, Vlasic and Braun have now been together for the past 50 or so games. The two defenders are quite comfortable together and are looking to build upon last year’s performance. Braun, in particular, could be much improved offensively after playing last year through a hand injury.
“[The injury] was a little bit of a hindrance, didn’t get to practice as much and I think that was the biggest thing but it’s good to be back one hundred percent” Braun said. “Hopefully I can find that offensive touch but continue to play strong defensively.”
Braun also mentioned the importance of familiarity with him and Vlasic.
“It’s good, you get used to what the other guy likes to do and where he’s going to be and you trust where he’s going to be and I think that’s the biggest thing. When you’re kind of all over the place [with different partners] guys like to play a little different, step up in different positions, it’s good to know what Eddie is going to do.”
The right handed shooting Braun talked further about the need to get pucks through to the net, like he did in Thursday’s opener, getting the game winning goal.
“Just getting pucks through, I had a lot of shots blocked last year. I think if I can continue to change the angle a little bit and find a lane, that will help me a lot, just get it down there so the forwards can whack away.”
Vlasic, who played with Scott Hannan when he made his debut in 2006-07, has played with a handful of partners since then including Rob Blake, Niclas Wallin and Dan Boyle, but now looks to finally have a partner that might remain for awhile.
“When you change partners a lot it’s usually because of injuries and it does take awhile to get used to a guy but I’ve played with Brauner for 60 games now straight and it’s going well.” chimed Vlasic. “We know each other pretty well out there, he does everything right. He doesn’t score eight points a game or have huge hits, nor do people notice him but he gets the job done. All the little things, he’s got great offensive skill, can shoot the puck, strong, great poise with the puck, so I love playing with him.”
Given health and their familiarity together, perhaps the duo could combine for 45-50 points this season after managing just 14 between them during the shortened season. In Thursday’s opener Vlasic picked up an assist on Braun’s goal, so they’re certainly off to a good start.
“We’d love to [chip in more], last game was a great start, just like to get pucks through, obviously last year we played against the top lines so anyway you can contribute offensively is a bonus and we’ll be working on that” responded Vlasic. “Obviously we want to contribute more offensively since last year we had a little bit more trouble [but] so far, so good, we’ll keep building and growing as a D pair.”
Between the two, Vlasic is certainly the bigger name, an established star who could very well be in consideration for Team Canada, but just who is Justin Braun? What would be some of his strengths?
“He never gives up on a play” added Vlasic. “We’re both the same way, we play almost the exact same way. We’re not overly physical but we play hard. We play fast, and we never give up on any play. He does that, he takes a lot of hits to make plays which not a lot of guys do. He does it every shift. He’s grown a lot since he’s come in and that’s why he’s getting rewarded. Good for him, he’s worked hard and playing regularly in the NHL, he’s done such a great job.”
Sharks head coach Todd McLellan concurred with Vlasic on Braun’s strong compete level.
“Same answer as the other day, great legs, competitive, knows where to be on the ice, sticks his nose in, the shot is coming [along], he feels more and more confident everyday.” confirmed the coach. “He’s an NHL regular player now. It used to be a call up guy who would fight his way into the lineup but he’s earned the right to be an everyday player.”
As for Braun playing with Vlasic, does the coach expect some more offensive contributions from his shut down pair?
“They know what their primary responsibility is and if they take care of that then we have to be satisfied. Anything extra and over and above that is a nice reward. Once they’re in the offensive zone, there is no reason why they can’t contribute just like anybody else but they’re well aware of what their role is.”
That primary role is to shut down players like Henrik and Daniel Sedin, which Vlasic and Braun did an admiral job of during the first round sweep last season. However, with Braun better capable of producing offensively, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see both players in the 20-25 point range. And those would be more than solid offensive contributions considering neither one is bound to see much power-play time.
Certainly offense won’t be a priority, but these two can do more than just defend, they can both skate and move the puck well for being a shut-down pair. Look for them to have a big season together on the Sharks blue-line.
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