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Projecting San Jose Sharks Opening Night Defense Pairs & Special Teams Units

By: Andrew Bensch | Published: 328 days ago.

Hertl smile 2

This past Thursday yours truly projected the Sharks opening night forward lines.

But what about the defense pairs and special teams units?

San Jose was quite studly last season when it came to preventing goals and their top defensemen are all set to return this season. Only depth defenseman David Schlemko no longer remains.

As for special teams, the Sharks power play bouncing back from a down year last season to its customary spot in the top 5-7 would be a welcomed sight. San Jose struggled to score last season both on the power play and at even strength. The penalty kill got off to a decent start in 2016-17, but struggled at times when falling back into a protective shell.

Let’s take a look at what Sharks fans may be able to expect this season, starting with the even-strength defense pairs.

Top Pair: Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun 

There is some disagreement among hockey folk as to which Sharks’ top-two pairs should be referred to as the “top” pair. After all Brent Burns won the Norris Trophy last season as the best defenseman in the league. However, this writer believes the “top-pair” label should be reserved for the shutdown duo tasked with taking on the likes of Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby. And that would be none other than Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun.

Some will argue that Vlasic and Braun had a down year last season as far as the advanced metrics are concerned. They certainly didn’t possess the puck as well as they have in years past. However, how much of that is on them and how much of it is on the team’s forwards is up for debate. Plus, a dip in possession still doesn’t take into consideration how strong these two played in their own zone last season. The eye tests suggests they still impressed at snuffing out what would otherwise have been glorious grade-A scoring chances.

While Vlasic and Braun may have each just turned 30, they are still well within the prime years for defensemen. These two should once again be one of the best, if not the best shutdown pair in the league this season.

2nd Pair: Brent Burns and Paul Martin

The previously alluded to Brent Burns remains one of the two most lethal scoring defensemen in the league. However, because of his defensive struggles upon first reverting back to a defenseman in 2014-15, he doesn’t get the credit for the high level of defensive play he’s delivered since the middle of 2015-16.

The year the Sharks went to the Stanley Cup, Paul Martin was a much needed calming influence for Burns’ wild ways. Last season though it was Burns who was more commonly seen bailing Martin out due to the latter’s poor pinches. While Martin was fantastic in 2015-16, the defensive defenseman showed his age in 2016-17. He was far slower getting back to loose pucks and starting breakouts. Martin was losing races to pucks that any any other defenseman on the roster would have easily reached first and cleared away or begun a breakout.

Unfortunately, the San Jose brass still think quite highly of Martin’s game. This is one area where I strongly disagree with their assessment. While Burns and Martin will no doubt start the season together (assuming everyone is healthy), my preference would be to start rookie Joakim Ryan next to Burns instead of Martin.

As discussed in another recent piece here at the Puck Times, Ryan is an excellent skater, and while he has yet to make his NHL debut, the 24-year old is more than ready. He already has two strong years under his belt at the AHL level after four years in the NCAA. Last season he was a two-way stud as part of the Barracuda’s top pair.

3rd Pair: Brenden Dillon and Tim Heed

Brenden Dillon is overpaid at a $3.25 million AAV and only a third-pair level defenseman. He is however, a dependable third pair defender. He is a tremendous skater and has good defensive awareness. That said, he brings next to nothing offensively and for a guy listed at 6’3” 225 pounds, he routinely gets outmuscled by smaller opposing forwards.

Ryan could and should play ahead of either Martin or Dillon, but I digress. Thankfully, I’m much more optimistic that Ryan’s partner from last season, Tim Heed, will start the year on this third pair. Heed proved last year in his first year playing in North America that he is capable of thriving on the smaller surface. Considering the Sharks need a quarterback to lead the second power play unit, Heed makes far more sense than Dylan Demelo. Last season Heed was one of the top scoring defenseman in the AHL with 56 points. While Demelo possesses decent offensive skills, he never went over 25 points in the AHL. Ergo, Demelo is better served as the seventh defenseman.

Power Play 1: Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl

With Patrick Marleau leaving for Toronto, it opens up at least one spot on the top power play unit. One could also argue the Sharks ought to consider dropping Thornton to the second unit given he was the primary catalyst that didn’t work on last year’s disappointing power play. In that case, the Sharks would have two openings on the top unit. It is well known though just how highly the Sharks think of their veterans, so nobody should forecast a Thornton demotion.

As for Marleau’s vacant spot, that opening should unequivocally go to Tomas Hertl. Sadly, we don’t yet know if Head Coach Pete DeBoer is going to be at all pressured by General Manager Doug Wilson to start with Mikkel Boedker on the top unit instead. Boedker was known for his power play prowess in Arizona, but he was absolutely dreadful last year in his first season in teal. He struggled at both even strength and on the man advantage. Hertl on the other hand helped ignite the struggling power play during the playoffs when he finally got bumped up to the top unit (although his time there was very brief).

The Sharks need someone replacing Marleau who is willing to drive the net. As recently noted in an excellent column in The Athletic, the Sharks have become overly reliant on using Burns’ point shot on the power play. They need to instead get back to creating shooting opportunities from closer to the net, where it is (unsurprisingly) easier to score. That’s why Tomas Hertl would be a far better choice than Boedker.

Power Play 2: Tim Heed, Mikkel Boedker, Joonas Donskoi, Timo Meier and Chris Tierney

Since the Sharks aren’t going to demote Thornton off the top power play, they will need to use fourth-line center Chris Tierney on the second unit. None of the other remaining forwards are true centers. However, this is not a bad thing. Tierney is far from a typical fourth-line center as he is arguably the second-best passer on the team behind Thornton. It is about time that he get the opportunity to show off that passing ability on the man advantage.

Tierney has the ability to be an excellent mini Thornton on the half wall. Meier meanwhile can park his big butt in front of the net. Either Donskoi or perhaps Kevin Labanc (both right-handed shooters) can play the opposite side of Tierney for one-time opportunities. Heed will act as a poor-man’s Burns/Boyle type at the point, and Boedker can play the opposite point as a playmaker feeding Heed and Donskoi.

Historically, the Sharks have had second units that aren’t very good. However, Tierney brings elite passing skills, Boedker has that power play pedigree, Heed has a cannon, and Meier and Donskoi both have the skills to finish around the net. This fivesome could end up being a solid second unit.

Penalty Kill Forward Pairs: Melker Karlsson and Tierney, Jannik Hansen and Hertl, Couture and Boedker

With Bob Boughner leaving to become Head Coach of the Florida Panthers, former Sharks assistant Rob Zettler has returned and will once again be in charge of the defense pairs and penalty kill. Zettler was last behind the Sharks bench in 2007-08 under then Head Coach Ron Wilson. The Sharks penalty kill actually finished first in the league that season at 85.8%.

The top four forwards used on the penalty kill that season were Mike Grier, Torrey Mitchell, Curtis Brown and Patrick Rissmiller. The top four defenseman were Vlasic, Christian Ehrhoff, Douglas Murray and Craig Rivet.

It is definitely plausible that Zettler can get the Sharks penalty kill back into the top-10 after finishing just 18th in the league last season. The Sharks actually have plenty of speed and tenacity when it comes to their potential penalty killers. Hansen, Karlsson, Couture and Boedker are all quality skaters, not to mention Marcus Sorensen when he gets in the lineup. It’s possible that the Sharks could keep up a strong, high-pressure penalty kill all season.

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