Marc-Edouard Vlasic scoffed at the suggestion that his blue-line marriage with Erik Karlsson is headed toward divorce after coach Pete DeBoer split them up for the third period of the Sharks win over the Nashville Predators on Tuesday.
That night, DeBoer slipped a pair of comfortable-old slippers on Vlasic’s feet, reuniting him with longtime partner Justin Braun after he and Karlsson posted a minus-3 rating over the game’s first 40 minutes. After the game, Vlasic told reporters not to “read into” the third period shakeup, saying that he expects to be partnered up with Karlsson for the long haul.
“I don’t know why I would think otherwise,” the Sharks defenseman snorted.
But DeBoer gave Sharks territory reason to think otherwise Friday when his threw his entire blue line into the blender as his team hung on for dear life to earn a point in a 4-3 shootout loss to the upstart Carolina Hurricanes.
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The Sharks started the game with the pairings they used in the final stanza Tuesday. Vlasic skated with Braun, Karlsson partnered up with Brenden Dillon and Brent Burns skated with Joakim Ryan. By the third, everything was jumbled up with Karlsson taking shifts alongside Vlasic, Dillon and Burns.
The mashup in Raleigh could be interpreted as the end of the Karlsson-Vlasic project. In reality, it’s just a bump along the long stretch of road that is the 82-game NHL season.
One thing we’ve learned about DeBoer during his three seasons behind the Sharks bench is that he isn’t afraid to break out his cocktail shaker when the team needs a stiff drink. When the Sharks are struggling to generate offense, he throws his forward lines in the lottery machine until he hits the jackpot.
In 2016-17, he split up the power play’s Fab Five into two separate units as they waddled near the bottom of the NHL almost two months into the season. He did what he needed to do to win games in the short term. Once it smoothed out, he put Humpty Dumpty back together again, reuniting Burns, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau.
This provides a good template for understanding why DeBoer is shuffling up the blue line right now. Karlsson is still adjusting to his new team and the mix and match is a short-term bandaid to help the Sharks through the growing pains. At the end of the day, Karlsson and Vlasic will be paired up together. It’s the only formula that makes sense.
In past years, the Sharks always partnered Vlasic with Braun, keeping Burns on a separate pairing from the NHL’s top-shutdown defenseman. It gave the Sharks a defensive-minded pairing to match up against the league’s top forward lines and an offensive-minded duo for zone starts in the other team’s end.
But Karlsson’s addition completely changed the dynamic on DeBoer’s chessboard. Now, he has two queens on the blue line that he can skate for a combined 50 minutes a night. Instead of using a shutdown pairing against the best forward lines in the league, the Sharks can play defense by tilting the ice and keeping the puck in the offensive zone, a formula they executed over the first eight games of the season.
Here’s the catch, though, the elite teams, the top-scoring forwards are still going get their chances as we saw in Nashville Tuesday. You might win the puck-possession game, but you aren’t going to keep Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Austin Matthews in straightjackets all night. That’s why the Sharks need Vlasic to play the Marc Methot role with Karlsson.
The two-time Norris Trophy winner thrived in Ottawa skating alongside Methot for five seasons. Methot is a rock-steady defensive stalwart. His awareness allowed Karlsson to unlock his offensive creativity. Karlsson could take chances knowing he had a security blanket watching his back. He could depend on Methot to be in the right spots, adjust to his positioning and break up odd-man rushes.
This is the chemistry that Karlsson and Vlasic need to develop. It’s a gradual process. It takes time. Just ask Ryan.
Last year, Ryan acknowledged that playing with Burns required him to climb a unique learning curve. It took him at least 20 games, if not more, to get a read on Burns’ tendencies, how to adapt to his free-wheeling style of play and maximize his offensive gifts.
Vlasic, on the other hand, is used to playing with another low-risk defenseman like himself. He and Braun think with the same mind, communicating almost telepathically while moving in unison on the ice.
Now, Vlasic’s starting from scratch in a completely-different role, playing alongside a wildly-unique partner.
But once he and Karlsson figure it out, the rest of the Sharks blue line will fall neatly into place. Burns and Ryan will be the offensive juggernaut while Braun and Dillon form one of the better third pairings in the NHL. Everyone will be slotted into the perfect role.
Vlasic insists that this is the end game for the Sharks blue line. We have no reason to think otherwise.