San Jose Sharks Trimester Report Card: Defencemen
Two days ago, I posted my thoughts on each of the San Jose Sharks forwards through 25 games, and graded each one. Here are my thoughts on the defense, sorted by defense pairs.
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DEFENSE PAIR 1
DAN BOYLE (27 GP, 1 G, 12 PTS, -2 Plus/Minus) has struggled to play at the elite level we’ve grown accustomed to this season, but he is still an excellent defenseman, and part of that decline is just a result of the game changing. It is harder for “rush” players like Boyle to produce now, as he admitted in that Working The Corners post I just linked to, and as I wrote about a couple of weeks before that in my blog on offense and excitement in our game.
Still, we’ve grown to expect more from Boyle, and no doubt Boyle expects more from himself. At 35 years of age, some Sharks fans are having a hard time not worrying that this is just the beginning of Boyle’s inevitable physical decline, but I would like to comfort Sharks fans that it isn’t, at least not drastically. Is Boyle every bit as dominant as he was the year he was traded to San Jose, at 32 years of age? Probably not, but if he’s declined in say, speed, it’s about a 3% decline. He’s still the most elusive defenseman in the league after Duncan Keith and Brian Campbell, and as good a puck-mover as anyone.
No, his talent is not the issue; he’s just having a poor stretch in terms of production. It happens to everyone. Boyle may even have a better excuse than most: he has a brand new defense partner on the power-play, the power-play being where a very large portion of Boyle’s production has come from in the past. Just last season, 27 of Boyle’s 50 points came on the power-play, 54%. So if there are still some adjustment issues on the power-play with the acquisition of Brent Burns, that alone could account for Boyle’s slow start to the season without any decline in talent at all. Although, Boyle has struggled 5-on-5 as well, despite the same partner in Douglas Murray.
Still, Boyle remains endlessly talented in the finesse aspects of our game. He has amazing edge control and agility, silky hands, and good hockey sense. He’s definitely in a rough patch, but he’s still one of the best and most important players on the Sharks.
DOUGLAS MURRAY (23 GP, 0 G, 3 PTS, +5 Plus/Minus) is still Douglas Murray, nothing more, nothing less. In my opinion he is the strongest physical specimen in the NHL, bar none; an absolute beast. He owns the boards and the front of the net, really anywhere he wants to own he owns.
But there are many defencemen with muscle in the NHL. What separates Murray, in addition to having more muscle, is that he also has very good defensive fundamentals and positioning. He can think the game well, which is important.
Offensively, he has improved his first-pass and mobility over the years to acceptable levels, but he’s still far from an offensive force, as we all know. But that’s not why Murray is on the team; he’s there for his defense and physicality, and in that regard he excels.
That’s not to say he has no weaknesses on defense. Like a giant when attacked by a million spiders, Murray is still vulnerable to quicker opponents with better maneuverability. And if any forward ever thought to isolate him 1-on-1 in a corner, and then do stops and starts back and forth with him trying to keep up, they would probably gain a yard of space every time they changed direction until they had a wide open path to the net. Murray is so big, he can’t stop on a dime like most NHL players can. It would be a huge weakness for him if anyone actually bothered trying to exploit it, but no one ever has, so it’s not.
Overall, Murray’s performance has been pretty much in line with his performance last year. An extremely solid physical defenseman who makes up for his lack of mobility on defense with good positioning, smarts, and strength.
DEFENSE PAIR 2
MARC-EDOUARD VLASIC (27 GP, 2 G, 12 PTS, +11 Plus/Minus) is having the best season of his career, more so than any other Sharks player. His 12 points in 25 games may be a little misleading, as he recorded most of those points over two games, but it’s the all-around game where Vlasic has really excelled this season. He leads the Sharks in plus/minus, which in this case accurately reflects what he’s been to the Sharks this year: their best defenseman.
Vlasic has always been a good skater, and he looks even faster this year than in years passed. He also looks stronger than he used to be, playing a (moderately) harder game. Vlasic was never one to make many mistakes, but this season even more than in the past, his defending has been near flawless. He doesn’t do much fancy, but he’s always been solid as a rock, and this year that rock has just gotten harder.
Offensively, Vlasic still isn’t very creative, and despite his skating ability, I never expect much point-production from him, where some do. But there is no question his play defensively has been elite. In particular, his backwards mobility, positioning, poke-check, and defensive instincts are second to none on the Sharks.
Overall, a great season so far. The only thing stopping me from giving him an A+ is then what would players like Shea Weber get, who are just as good on defense as he is and bring more offense? Nevertheless, Vlasic has been fantastic.
BRENT BURNS (27 GP, 4 G, 9 PTS, +9 Plus/Minus) is an endlessly talented offensive-defenseman that, in the past, has often been accused of alternating between brilliance and stupidity. You could say that by his nature, he is a risk/reward type of player. But that’s not all bad. If you have a player with the talent Burns has, you want him taking calculated risks, because he’s the type of player who can make them pay off. The trick with risk/reward players is always to minimize the risk and maximize the reward. For the most part, after some early season hiccups, I feel Burns has done that, no doubt with the help of the Sharks coaching staff.
For instance, Burns has not been caught out of position since joining the Sharks as often as he did with the Wild. He has been more dependable in general at even-strength, playing a smarter game on defense and not making ill-timed pinches on offense. He’s even impressed for flashes on the penalty kill.
However, those flashes only last as long as the puck stays out of the net, which has not happened too often with the Sharks 30th ranked penalty kill. And as Burns plays the second most minutes on the penalty kill of any Sharks defenseman, he has to bear some responsibility for that.
On offense, Burns has not yet reached the high level he played at in Minnesota, but that may be a result of taking less risks in San Jose. With players like Burns, it’s hard to get both their best offense and best defense at the same time, because one usually borrows from the other. While Burns is definitely capable of more offense, I think he’s found a good balance in his game. There is still some room to improve, but I’m pretty happy with where he is, currently on pace for a 12 Goal, 27 Point, and +27 plus/minus season.
Would you like him to be closer to 50 points? Absolutely, but what good are the extra points if they come at the expense of the great defensive work behind that +27 pace? Sure, if Burns can find a way to do both, obviously that would be ideal, but I think you take the +27 if you can get it. That would be the best Plus/Minus any Sharks defenseman has finished a season with in at least 15 years, if not franchise history (NHL.com only has the stats listed back to 1997-98).
Overall, a good start for Burns. You would prefer a little more offense from him, especially on the power-play where there’s no trade-off with his defense, but I believe he’s more than made up for his decline in scoring with his defensive game, which has seen much improvement from last season in Minnesota.
DEFENSE PAIR 3
JASON DEMERS (17 GP, 1 G, 5 PTS, -3 Plus/Minus) has been one of the Sharks biggest disappointments this season. He’s been a healthy scratch many nights, and when he does play you can’t help but feel he deserves to sit again. He, along with Colin White, just makes so blatant errors out there. It’s hard to say what’s wrong with him, as he’s still a good skater with decent hockey sense and awareness, but he just hasn’t been the same as last year. It’s a bit of a mystery. At least with fourth-line center Andrew Desjardins, who I touched on in my forward grades, I spotted as early as preseason that he appeared a step slower. With Demers, the problem has not been as visible from afar. It could be confidence, it could be that other teams have finally figured out how to expose the former 7th round pick who never spent time developing in the AHL. I don’t have the answer, all I know is Demers has never looked worse in a Sharks uniform.
COLIN WHITE (18 GP, 0 G, 1 PTS, -2 Plus/Minus) has been the Sharks worst player through the first 25 games of the season. Many were very excited by his addition; I myself bought into the hype only in so far as I expected him to be better than Jim Vandermeer (and that’s how I remembered him). But not only has Vandermeer been better, everyone on the Sharks has been better than Colin White.
Then why did Doug Wilson sign him? The Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup last season with a big, physical team, and specifically big defencemen. Doug Wilson has always been known as the NHL’s number-one copy-cat, so what did he look to add in the offseason? Size. Brent Burns, Michal Handzus, Andrew Murray, Colin White, Jim Vandermeer, Brad Winchester, all huge players. The problem with the Colin White acquisition is that his size (and maybe his Stanley Cup rings) blinded Doug Wilson’s eyes to everything else, in the same way that Patrick Roy’s cup rings plugged his ears to Jeremy Roenick’s comments during the 1996 Western Conference Semi-Finals. Wilson fell in love with White’s size and experience so much that he didn’t realize how poor White is at many of the other important aspects to defending.
For instance, White’s hockey sense is poor. His reads are poor. His positioning is poor. His mobility is okay for a big man, but it’s not great. And worse than his actual defending without the puck is how he transitions play with the puck. He makes bad decisions which has resulted in more costly turnovers off his stick than any other Shark.
Ultimately, every team wants “size” on their defense, but size isn’t worth much if it’s not accompanied by good positioning and reads. Defending is much more about smarts than brawn these days, just ask Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Suffice to say, the Colin White signing has not panned out so far.
DEFENSE PAIR 4
JIM VANDERMEER (10 GP, 0 G, 3 PTS, +2 Plus/Minus) has only played 10 games this season, but so far he’s shown himself a capable bottom-pairing defenseman. He and his partner Justin Braun have certainly been a better pair than White and Demers, but that’s not really saying much by itself given how badly White and Demers have each struggled.
One of Vandermeer’s advantages over White is his mobility. Though not an expert skater, he is quicker than White. He also plays a smarter positional game than him, although reads were actually an issue for Vandermeer too at times last season in Edmonton.
Really, for reasons just like that, it’s hard knowing what to make about Vandermeer vs. White, given that White came in with the reputation of being the better defenseman, yet Vandermeer has outplayed him this season. I can only go by what I’ve seen in San Jose, which is that Vandermeer is the more mobile defender with better positioning and on-ice smarts. The only area I see White coming out ahead is, again, size, but that’s not enough by itself. If I’m Todd Mclellan, I’m playing Vandermeer over White until White shows me he’s better than he’s played so far, and/or Vandermeer shows me he’s not as good as he’s played so far. For now, though, Vandermeer is the one who’s at least played like a capable third-pairing defenseman, and White hasn’t.
Justin Braun is a defenseman many Sharks fans were very high on last season, in part because they viewed him as a prospect when really, he’s 24 years old. Still a fairly young player, but no longer a prospect.
Age aside, Braun is a pretty good skater who, particularly last season, excelled at getting shots through to the net during his short time up at the big club.
However, there are a lot of great skating defencemen in leagues all over the world who don’t make the NHL, whether that’s Hockey East where Braun was drafted out of, or take your pick of the other leagues. Skating alone is not enough to make a good NHL defenseman. Few single skills alone are. Luckily for Braun, he also has good height, a good reach, and a fairly good shot.
But these are mostly offensive assets. And seeing as Braun only has 2 points in 12 games for the Sharks this season, I’m interested in getting more of an idea of his defensive game. Braun clearly has some offensive talent, but by no means is it elite, or enough to make him a good NHL defenseman without good defense backing it up. I suspect that is why the Sharks still haven’t given him a permanent job at the big club. For every flash of good (not great) skill on offense, there is a defensive lapse. Take the non-goal scored against him by Dustin Brown in the Sharks last meeting with the Los Angeles Kings. Maybe because it was the Kings and Braun was trying to impress his coach, he decided to do his best Drew Doughty imitation and make an unneeded crossover. Whatever his thought-process was, he gave Brown room where there was none, and it almost cost his team a goal, if not it being called back due to a controversial video review.
It’s plays like that which must prevent the coaching staff from fully trusting Braun, especially against good teams (i.e the teams you will face in the playoffs). And if they can’t trust Braun against the good teams, is he really the answer for the bottom-pairing? Do you really want him out in a playoff game? An away playoff game no less, where the other team can dictate the match-ups and put its best forwards out against him?
Those are important questions to ask, ones I haven’t quite made my mind up about yet. Because besides the more obvious mistakes we see here and there from Braun, I honestly do not feel like I have a good read yet on his defensive awareness and smarts. I still need to see more. Perhaps Todd Mclellan and the Sharks coaching staff feels the same way.
But overall, I feel Braun is a fairly talented offensive defenseman with pretty good hockey sense at both ends of the ice. He just gets in trouble here and there on offense for different reasons. He may not be the future All-Star defenseman some Sharks fans think, but I do think he has the potential to develop into a good #4 if he keeps working.
For now, though, he needs more consistency on the defensive side of the puck before he can be trusted as a regular in the Sharks lineup, especially against the best teams. More point production wouldn’t hurt either in a general sense, especially if it’s Jason Demers’ spot on the third pairing he’s competing for.
Written by Shark Circle
I’ve decided to hold the goaltender grades for tomorrow, as I don’t want to make this too long. But check back tomorrow for my thoughts on Antti Niemi and Thomas Greiss, and then my thoughts on the team as a whole the next day (or possibly something on the coaches in between).
Thank you very much for reading, and I encourage you to subscribe to the blog by entering your email address in the top-right corner and clicking the Subscribe! button. This will allow you to be notified the moment new blogs are posted. You can also follow the blog on twitter. I tweet (in moderation) all about the SJ Sharks and NHL, respond to questions, and just talk hockey with anyone looking to chat Sharks, NHL, or any other team.
• If you missed my thoughts on the forwards through 25 games, click here.
• A look at the Sharks Struggles since facing the Canucks, especially against good teams.
• San Jose Sharks vs. St Louis Blues Game Recap
BLOGS RELEVANT TO THE ENTIRE NHL
• An in-depth look into the current state of the NHL game, including the true explanation for why Alexander Ovechkin can’t score like he used to.
BLOS RELEVANT TO THE SAN JOSE SHARKS FIRST, & NHL SECOND
• 30 Teams, 30,000 Thoughts: San Jose Sharks (Part 1/2)
• 30 Teams, 30,000 Thoughts: San Jose Sharks (Part 2/2)
A LOOK AT SOME OF THE SHARKS PACIFIC DIVISION RIVALS
BLOGS RELEVANT TO THE ANAHEIM DUCKS AND NHL
• 30 Teams, 30,000 Thoughts: Anaheim Ducks
• A look at Ryan Getzlaf’s subtle decline, and is poor work ethic to blame?
BLOGS RELEVANT TO THE LOS ANGELES KINGS AND NHL
• 30 Teams, 30,000 Thoughts: Los Angeles Kings
• Examining the reasons for Drew Doughty’s decline since his sophomore year
BLOGS RELEVANT TO THE DALLAS STARS AND NHL
• 30 Teams, 30,000 Thoughts: Dallas Stars
• Dan Boyle: “The game’s changed.” Dan Boyle confirms what I wrote weeks ago in my article on the major changes that have taken place the last few seasons in the way our game is played.
• Ryan Getzlaf’s Work Ethic
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