One year ago, the San Jose Sharks entered regular season action with some questions surrounding their defensive corps. The club had made an offer sheet to Blackhawks’ defender Niklas Hjalmarsson that was ultimately matched by the cap space-strapped ‘Hawks, and the failure of that route wasn’t followed up with other action.
As a result, the Sharks ended up going with a hybrid approach, both asking Dan Boyle to shoulder a tremendous load and employing a by-committee style rotation with the rest of their defensemen. That approach worked to a large degree, but unfortunately the team’s blue-liners were something of a weakness on an otherwise outstanding roster.
This season, San Jose has opted to bolster their defensive unit with some very strong additions. Right now, they will arguably ice the best blue line in hockey.
There are other teams with strong defensive units, of course. Philadelphia in particular possesses tremendous talent on its back end – particularly if Chris Pronger is healthy – but both of last season’s Stanley Cup finalists could argue they deserve the title, Nashville has a strong stable of defenders and one truly elite talent, Pittsburgh’s group is versatile and dynamic and there are undoubtedly other clubs that could put forward reasonable claims for the title. None of that changes the fact that the Sharks has assembled a special group.
It starts with Dan Boyle, the Mr. Everything on San Jose’s blue-line. Last season he played a hair under 2000 total minutes (ninth in the NHL), leading the Sharks defensive group in ice-time at even-strength and on the power play by a wide margin, and finishing just one second back of the team lead for time on the penalty-kill. At even-strength he played the toughest possible opposition and did a good job of both limiting their offense and generating scoring for his own side.
Boyle will be joined by Brent Burns, who filled much the same function in Minnesota. Burns ranked sixth in the NHL in total ice-time with a shade over 2000 minutes, and like Boyle those minutes were spread out over all situations. Playing for a lousy team, Burns filled the toughest possible even-strength role – handling top opponents while starting nearly 60% of his shifts in his own zone. Despite those limitations, no full-season defender on the team was on the ice for fewer shots against in an average shift than Burns.
Beyond those two number one-calibre defenders, the Sharks still boast most of their players from last season, along with new additions like Colin White and Jim Vandermeer. White’s season last year was subpar by his lofty standards but the tough-as-nails rearguard has been playing the top shutdown role for some very good New Jersey teams for the better part of a decade and has generally excelled. Vandermeer, meanwhile, is still a useful spare part who can fill in as needed and play on the penalty kill.
Among the holdovers, both Douglas Murray and Marc-Edouard Vlasic stand out in a positive way. Vlasic has never lived up to the offensive potential he showed with a 36-point outing in 2008-09, but he has evolved into a highly capable defensive zone specialist. In each of the last three seasons, Vlasic has started more of his shifts in the defensive zone than any other Sharks defenseman and generally faced top opponents; over that span he’s also chalked up a plus-50 rating. Douglas Murray, meanwhile, adds a physical element the club largely lacked last season but also paired with Boyle to form the Sharks’ top defensive tandem.
A pair of under-25’ers (Justin Braun and Jason Demers) round out the group, and both excelled last season in a largely third-pairing role. Demers led the Sharks with a plus-19 rating, and both players saw ice-time in all situations.
It is a versatile group anchored by two number one defensemen, and will be a significant source of strength for the Sharks this coming season.