On the eve of San Jose’s regular season opener, there is one critical area of the Sharks squad that has fans understandably worrisome.
Considering the hole left by last year’s captain Rob Blake, (who elected to retire) the quality and depth of San Jose’s blue-line is by far the biggest question mark heading into the season. After all, Blake was an integral part of the team last season. He ate up nearly 20 minutes of ice time per game and spent time on both the power play and penalty kill.
Despite being nearly twice the age of most of his competitors and teammates, Blake was still a top contributor in 2009-10. Blake’s role was so integral that shortly after his retirement press conference, fans and experts alike were already convinced of San Jose’s need to replace him with a top-rated free agent defenseman.
While GM Doug Wilson was unable to make such an acquisition, it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
By making a contract offer to Chicago Blackhawks’ defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson this offseason, Wilson made it clear to the entire hockey world that he was looking to upgrade his blue-line. The Sharks offered Hjalmarsson a four-year, $14M dollar contract but being a restricted free agent meant that Chicago had the choice to match the offer. And after Chicago matched, Wilson’s remaining options in the free agent market were slim to none.
Ergo, the Sharks now stand without a single new defenseman on the eve of their season opener.
This lack of an outside upgrade means that the returning blue-liners must make tremendous strides this season. And when you consider that the Sharks defensive unit wasn’t very highly regarded last season, there is pressure to make up and surpass what Blake brought to the defense.
Fortunately, the Sharks have two young defenseman who have the potential to make this year’s blue-line better from within.
Fifth year defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic and second year defenseman Jason Demers have the most pressure out of the group to make up and surpass what Blake brought to the table.
Behind the number one pairing of Dan Boyle and Douglass Murray, the Sharks have Vlasic (who partnered with Blake the last two seasons) and either Demers, Kent Huskins or Niclas Wallin to form the second pairing. It is unknown how often Vlasic and Demers will be paired together this upcoming season but both have the all around potential to make vast improvements in their game. Unlike Wallin or Huskins, both Vlasic and Demers have the youth and offensive skill sets that will allow them to make bigger impacts this season.
Vlasic, 23, has been San Jose’s best defensive defenseman over the last couple of years but his offensive production dropped off significantly last season. The native of Montreal finished with 36 points in 82 games two years ago but managed just 16 points in 64 games last season.
When completely healthy, Vlasic is as fast as any of the “puck-moving” defenseman in the league but his willingness to jump up in the play seems to be hit and miss. If “Pickles” (as his teammates and fans call him) can keep up his defensive prowess and set new career highs in scoring this season, the Sharks will be much better off.
Although Vlasic picking up his offensive production won’t be nearly as critical as the potential improvement of defensive zone play by Demers. Any way you slice it, if Demers can find a way to become a respectable defender in his own zone, the Sharks will be without a doubt the team to beat in the Western Conference.
Currently, teams like Chicago and Vancouver clearly have an defensive edge when it comes to being the favorite to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup final. But if Demers, who posted an impressive 21 points in 51 regular season games for the Sharks last year, can vastly improve his defensive game, the Sharks will have themselves the makings of a second Dan Boyle.
There is simply no denying Demers’ offensive ability. As a rookie, Demers saw No. 1 power-play time ahead of the aforementioned Rob Blake. Combine that raw talent with 51 regular season games and 15 postseason contests under his belt from last season, and the San Jose faithful are rightfully expecting big things from the second year defenseman.
Make no bones about it, Vlasic and Demers are the two most crucial players heading into this upcoming season.
Everyone knows of the firepower that San Jose boasts up front and Antti Niemi proved last season that he can make the key saves when needed to win a Stanley Cup (behind a strong defense).
But where is that strong defense for San Jose? Right now, their defense is far from strong and perhaps they will have to make a move at the trade deadline.
However, if Vlasic and Demers can make strides this season, a deadline move might not be necessary.