How Sharks' defense has struggled without Marc-Edouard Vlasic vs. Vegas

How Sharks' defense has struggled without Marc-Edouard Vlasic vs. Vegas

Since losing Marc-Edouard Vlasic to an undisclosed injury in Game 2 of their first-round series with the Vegas Golden Knights, the Sharks haven't been the same in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

Vlasic left the ice with 18:54 remaining in the second period that night, and did not return after Shea Theodore's shot hit the Sharks defenseman up high. Mark Stone scored Vegas' game-winning goal 25 seconds later, and it's been all Vegas since. 

In Vlasic's absence, the Sharks have been out-scored 13-3 over the last eight periods of this best-of-seven series, including a 5-0 loss to the Golden Knights in Game 4 on Tuesday. Before Vlasic's injury, they held a 6-5 edge (excluding an empty-net goal) in the first four periods. In 5-on-5 situations, the Knights have generated 25 high-danger chances to the Sharks' 17 since Vlasic went down. 

"There are times when you have to fight through it, and you've heard the clichés [like] 'next man up,'" said Curtis Brown, an NBC Sports California analyst and former Sharks winger (2004; 2006-08). "But, in all honesty, that's very difficult when you're talking about world-class players. You only have the ability to have so many, and the next player up typically is somebody that doesn't have the same experience, most times the same ability, right? So, you're playing somewhat short-handed."

It'd be too simple to chalk up the Sharks facing elimination in Game 5 on Friday to Vlasic's absence. Starting goaltender Martin Jones has been pulled in two of his last three games, and has an .838 save percentage on the series. Plus, Joakim Ryan -- pressed into a larger role -- and Tim Heed -- pressed into the lineup -- have been solid in the last two games. 

But Vlasic's absence has put additional strain on the Sharks' other top defensemen, and they have struggled. Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson were individually beaten on Vegas' second and fourth goals on Tuesday, respectively. 

Karlsson, who missed 27 of San Jose's last 33 games of the regular season due to injury, has not looked like himself since a strong start in Game 1. With him on the ice at full strength the last three games, the Sharks have allowed 12 high-danger chances and generated eight. Burns, who was Vlasic's primary defensive partner in the series at 5-on-5 before the injury, has been on the ice for 14 high-danger chances at 5-on-5 compared to 11 for when he's skated without Vlasic this series. 

With Karlsson not looking 100 percent, the job of a defense corps that's already missing Vlasic and top-six blue-liner Radim Simek (recovering from March knee surgery) becomes even harder, according to Brown. 

"I can only recall what it meant to me when [I was] playing, and you want to have -- if at all possible -- your best chips," Brown said. "And ultimately right now, they don't have that."

[RELATED: Sharks' frustration with Fleury evident after Game 4 loss]

Vlasic did not practice prior to Games 3 and 4, and it remains to be seen if he will practice when the Sharks return to San Jose on Wednesday, let alone be available when they face elimination in Game 5 on Thursday night. The Sharks could certainly use him then, even as they'll have their hands full fixing their game in other areas. 

Sharks players praise Bob Boughner's work as interim head coach


Sharks players praise Bob Boughner's work as interim head coach

Being an interim head coach is never easy. The title itself implies something went wrong with someone previously at the top during the flow of a season, and that was certainly the case when Bob Boughner took over the Sharks on Dec. 11, 2019 after Pete DeBoer got sacked.

The once mighty Sharks were floundering, in desperate need of an about face the front office hoped radical change could provide. Team Teal got better but never good enough to make a real playoff push. They even ended up disqualified from an expanded, 24-team playoff format designed to restart the NHL season after pausing it over the coronavirus pandemic, with a long offseason ahead to sort out their issues.

Finding a head coach is definitely one, though after doing due diligence, it’s possible the Sharks simply lift the interim tag off Boughner’s title.

“We have time to build the staff that’s best going forward for this team,” Sharks GM Doug Wilson told NBC Sports California’s Brodie Brazil. “Bob has certainly got the inside track. … We’re still in the middle of that process. We’ll be very thorough.”

Players don’t have ultimate say in that decision, but they were impressed by what Boughner was able do after taking DeBoer’s place.

“I don’t think he entered a very easy situation,” defenseman Erik Karlsson said Thursday in a video conference with local reporters. “He did the best he could with what he had. He clearly thought about what he needed to fix immediately, and also had a long-term plan even though his future was uncertain.

“I think he did the right thing for the team and the organization moving forward. I think he did everything he could to be the best coach he could be. I think we got a boost from [him], but I think we were a little bit too far gone to really be saved.”

[RELATED: Sharks GM Doug Wilson discusses odd end of season, coaching search]

The Sharks were 15-16-2 under DeBoer and 14-20-3 under Boughner, though the interim head dealt with season-ending injuries to Karlsson and Tomas Hertl and played several weeks without captain Logan Couture.

Boughner helped improve a porous defense and held players accountable for poor play and missteps. Long-tenured Shark Brent Burns was impressed by Boughner’s effort, seeing a change in his style after return to the team after two seasons as Florida Panthers head coach.

“You could see there was a difference in him from being a head coach during the time he was in Florida, but he was still ‘Bougy,’” Burns said. “He has all those positive things that made him great as an assistant. He learned to be a head coach, so he evolved and became a bit more authoritative. He has the ability to interact with guys like he’s still a player. He’s a great communicator. He gets what’ going on and sees it, but at the end of the day he has a little bit of that “Fear of God” in him.

“I think he learned a lot from Pete, learning from a great coach. He was great before, but you could see he evolved and was better. The atmosphere he creates is good. That’s tough to say with how sh--ty everything was going, but he did a great job with where he was at and where we were at.”

[RELATED: Sharks' path back to Stanley Cup contention filled with major hurdles]

Boughner knew most long-tenured Sharks, but also found a way to connect with younger players.

“I learned a lot from him,” defenseman Mario Ferraro said. “He held me accountable out there and gave me a lot of advice as a young player in the league. I like the way he coaches and, if I were to make a mistake, he’s going to be hard on me but show me a way I can improve with video and stuff in practice. The season was pretty hilly for me, and when I was on the downhill, he would try to pick me back up. It’s a privilege to play for him.”

What Logan Couture learned from from first season as Sharks captain

What Logan Couture learned from from first season as Sharks captain

Logan Couture was an obvious choice to succeed Joe Pavelski after his four seasons as Sharks captain.

The veteran center was an alternate captain during Pavelski’s time leading the locker room. He’s a long-tenured Shark with steady on-ice performance and penchant for stepping up in the clutch. The 31-year-old has the work ethic and temperament required of such a post so, after Pavelski signed a three-year with the Dallas Stars last summer, Couture eventually had the “C” stitched on his sweater.

Couture’s first season leading the team was rockier than expected. The Sharks went from Western Conference finalists to cellar dwellers in a flash, with the team adjusting to Pete DeBoer’s in-season firing after a sluggish start and unable to recover while beset by injuries to star players. That included Couture, who missed 17 games with a fractured ankle.

The locker room was admittedly tense during an unexpected downturn, but Couture worked hard to keep the squad focused on playing together under interim coach Bob Boughner.

Couture has had time to reflect on his first NHL experience as captain since the league hit pause on the 2019-20 season in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the distance has provided perspective. While the season went awry, Couture vowed to use those bad times as a way to learn and grow as a leader.

“It was obviously a learning experience in a lot of different situations, many of which I had never been in as a player,” Couture said Thursday in a video conference with Sharks reporters. “We had a coach get fired. We went through tough times, a lot of guys got hurt and we lost a lot of games in difficult ways. Although it was a very difficult, difficult season, that I can learn a lot from situations we were in as a team and I was in individually. My goal is to become a better teammate, person and player from this past year.”

Couture believes the Sharks had a lackluster training camp that led to a poor start, and things spiraled from there. Losing consistently was a new experience for most, considering the Sharks had missed the playoffs only once since the 2003-04 season. The new and difficult experience was uncomfortable, and Couture admits the players didn’t always handle things well.

“When you’re losing and things are going your way, frustrating builds and it builds quickly,” Couture said. “With us, a lot of guys in our room have never gone through a season like that. Some may have years ago, but not recently. From top to bottom I don’t think anyone handled it the best possible way. I’m obviously in that group. There’s a lot that I think I can learn from.

“All we can do now is move forward, come together and learn from this. Everyone needs to buy in. Get a good training camp underneath us and get going from there. Everyone will learn from this year and it’ll make us stronger.”

[RELATED: Couture believes Sharks' ambition must be high in long offseason]

The captain’s lieutenants feel the same push to help the team stay together and improve quickly after a lost season where they didn’t even qualify for a modified 24-team playoff format to be played once the season restarts.

Tomas Hertl also dealt with a knee injury ending his season in late January, but still feels he could’ve done more as a leader.

“I tried to be the same guy and lead, but I know I can be better in that role,” Hertl said. “I should be Logan’s second hand and help him out more and more. I think I learned a lot as well this past season about the importance of being a leader. I think we should all be a little bit better, especially in a situation like we were in where we struggled.

"All 20 guys should work as one. It doesn’t matter if you’re an assistant or a captain. Everyone should work hard to keep the team together. I really want to be better for Logan because he has been there for me from the start of my career.”