During the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, the San Jose Sharks had a big problem on defense.
Their third pair could not get out of its own way.
Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak were a defense pair put together with jelly and jelly. Two physical defenders who struggle moving the puck was a receipe for disaster.
Dillon and Polak skated together in all 24 Sharks playoff games last season. They both finished the postseason with a minus-5 rating. Out of 19 skaters the Sharks used in the playoffs, they were the only two players to finish with a minus rating. Joonas Donskoi turned in the next lowest rating at an even zero. As far as offensive contributions? Dillon managed a mere two assists while Polak didn't register a single point in the postseason.
This offseason the Sharks wisely let Polak walk in free agency and replaced him with veteran journeyman David Schlemko. It is certainly early, just four games into the regular season, but the difference is night and day. Polak and Dillon were a cringeworthy pair every time they were on the ice last season. Schlemko and Dillon have shown they can be trusted in any situation, even against opposing team's top lines. Head Coach Peter DeBoer does not have to worry about keeping them away from certain players.
Again, four games is a tiny sample size, but Dillon and Schlemko are each a plus-1 through these first four games. They have arguably been the most fun pair to watch. It seems inconceivable that Schlemko has bounced around his whole career. His patience and vision with the puck to make plays on the breakout and even lead rushes through the neutral zone, is that of a top-4 defenseman.
Through four games, the Sharks have attempted 66 shots and given up just 35 with Schlemko on the ice at five aside. While Schlemko and Dillon won't face tough minutes this season with Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic skating on the top-two pairs, this third pair is proving they are more of a 2B pair than a traditional third pair. The third pair won't continue to carry an absurd 66% Corsi the rest of the season, but you can be guaranteed they will finish the year in the mid-50s (at-worst) with a healthy Schlemko.
Whether it is his lack of size (6'0" 190), or simply being stuck in shadows of guys like Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson in Phoenix, Schlemko has never gotten enough credit. Not only is he adept at moving the puck in all three zones, but his tremendous transitional skating allows him to be a strong defender away from the puck in the defensive zone. A four-year deal at just $2.1 million AAV for a 29-year-old defenseman capable of playing top-four minutes and on both special teams units, is an absolute steal.
Last spring nobody in the Western Conference was good enough to prevent the Sharks from getting to the Stanley Cup final. With the Sharks bringing back all their key players and Schlemko raising the third pair from miserable to elite, I don't see any team in the West preventing the Sharks from making a return trip.