The San Jose Sharks sealed their first three-game winning streak with a 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators on Wednesday night. In the process, they still experienced their biggest loss of the season.
Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game just over a minute into the third period with an apparent head injury. Predators forward Ryan Johansen lined up Vlasic for a hit along the boards, and his elbow appeared to drive Vlasic’s head into the boards.
Head coach Peter DeBoer offered no update on Vlasic’s status after the game. Given Vlasic’s own injury history, and his importance to the team, the Sharks have plenty of reasons to be concerned.
Last season, Vlasic suffered multiple facial fractures after taking a puck to the face in a December 30 with over the Philadelphia Flyers. Vlasic missed the next four games, and was not the same player defensively after returning.
He scored 19 points in 40 games after the injury, compared to 9 in 35 before, but his puck possession numbers cratered upon his return. Last season was the first in Vlasic’s career where the Sharks attempted less shots than their opponents with the defenseman on the ice, according to Hockey Reference.
Since Vlasic appeared to suffer another injury to his head, the Sharks will need to be extra cautious working him back to health and towards a return to the lineup. His recovery is the most important priority, even as the Sharks will likely struggle in his absence.
Even though Vlasic failed to drive play in the same way he’s done in the past last season, his presence opens up opportunities for his fellow defensemen. This season, no Sharks blueliner has started a lower percentage of shifts in the offensive zone than Vlasic, per Natural Stat Trick.
With Vlasic and partner Justin Braun drawing the toughest assignments, Brent Burns and Tim Heed are freed up and able to create offensively while playing against more manageable competition. Vlasic’s potential absence, then, will fundamentally change how DeBoer utilizes his defense.
The Sharks could soon have reinforcements, as defenseman Paul Martin is practicing with the team and DeBoer told reporters after the game he’s “getting closer” to a return from injured reserve. His return will ensure something resembling normalcy on the blueline, as San Jose will still have three defenseman playing on their proper side.
Make no mistake, though: any time without Vlasic would represent a real test for the Sharks, who went just 2-4-1 without him last season. Any team is in trouble after losing a minutes-eating defenseman to injury, but the Sharks are especially dependent upon him.
Vlasic’s presence makes life easier for his teammates, and his absence will make things much harder as the team is beginning to hit its stride.