Brent Burns won’t be the only Sharks defenseman skating without his usual partner on Saturday night against the Ducks.
Justin Braun will, too, as Marc-Edouard Vlasic will join fellow injured blueliner Paul Martin in the press box.
Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer normally tasks Braun and Vlasic with the team’s most difficult defensive assignments, giving the pair the least amount of offensive zone starts and deploying them against the toughest competition.
In that role, the two have not lived up to their usual standards over the last year and change. Since the start of last season, the Sharks are losing the possession battle with the pair on the ice, accounting for only 46.3 percent of the shot attempts, according to Corsica.
For context, Braun and Vlasic had never failed to account for 50 percent of the shot attempts in their respective careers before last year.
Last season, both players fared better away from each other than they did together. In just over 232 minutes apart, the Sharks controlled 57.18 percent of even strength shot attempts with Vlasic on the ice, and 50.49 percent with Braun, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Braun posted his best possession numbers alongside Brenden Dillon last season, and Dillon is likely to be Braun’s partner against Anaheim, the San Jose Mercury News’ Paul Gackle reported. The duo controlled 52.82 percent of the shot attempts together, and only started 1.67% more of their shifts in the offensive zone than Vlasic and Braun, per Corsica.
That came in a little over 144 minutes together, so this isn’t an extremely significant sample. But, Braun’s play alongside Dillon will be worth watching, if only to see if the Sharks can afford to lighten Vlasic’s load upon his return.
The Sharks are incredibly dependent upon Vlasic and Braun to draw tough competition in order to free up the rest of the defense. The other two pairings have driven play against weaker competition, but that approach forces the Sharks to soak up a lot of pressure from their opponents’ best players.
If Braun and Dillon demonstrate they’re able to succeed under similar, albeit less difficult circumstances, DeBoer will have more defensive flexibility. It could free up Vlasic to play with Burns, moving an aging Paul Martin into a third pairing role he may be better suited for.
DeBoer, though, clearly trusts Braun and Vlasic with a heavy defensive burden, even as they aren’t driving play. Whether or not he should under those circumstances is another matter entirely, and one that Vlasic’s absence allows him to explore.