Fresh off a 5-game winning streak, the Sharks looked primed to steamroll into the Christmas break with three home games to finish out their schedule. Those hopes were quickly dashed as they dropped all three games, including a pair of disappointing losses to subpar division foes Los Angeles and Arizona on consecutive nights. As they now head into the 3-day holiday break, the coaching staff has a myriad of questions to ponder over as the team’s inconsistency continues to befuddle everyone.
One of the primary questions sure to be at the forefront of those thoughts is deciphering how to resolve the continued struggles of Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Normally an elite defender, Vlasic or “Pickles” as he is affectionally known by in San Jose currently sports a team worst -16 rating. In the Sharks latest defeat to the Coyotes, Vlasic’s demise was on full display again during a shift in which he was largely responsible for consecutive breakaways that led to a
goal. Speculation has grown rampant on what may be causing his sudden decline. Many theories have been tossed around anywhere from potential injuries to how he’s adjusted to the arrival of Erik Karlsson. While his surprisingly poor play is likely a combination of various factors, only Vlasic and the coaching staff truly know what’s going on behind closed doors.
The question then becomes, what options does San Jose have to try and get his game
From most likely to happen, to least likely….
Status Quo Option: Let him play through it
This is the approach Peter DeBoer and his staff have taken to this point of the season. They continue to utilize Vlasic as they traditionally have by matching him up against the likes of Conor McDavid, Anze Kopitar, Jamie Benn, and other elite talents of the league on a nightly basis. There have yet to be any indications of an impending change in strategy with this approach by the coaching staff. Vlasic and his defensive partner Justin Braun are obviously accustomed to this role and thus have an inherent comfort level with it. In the coaching staff’s defense, Vlasic has proven over the last decade to be one of the top shutdown defensemen in the NHL and they may feel it’s only a matter of time for him to snap out of it. One could certainly argue that it’s important to show confidence in a guy that has been so critical to the team’s success in recent history.
The counter argument of course would be that he is clearly not playing at the level expected of him and blindly hoping that is going to suddenly change without some tweaks is hopeful at best. This approach also begs the question how much longer the team can afford to let winnable games go by the wayside.
Meritocracy Option: Reduce his ice time and responsibilities
Naturally when any player is going through a rough patch, you tend to see their ice time drop accordingly. In the case of forwards, you may see them demoted to the 4th line or constantly shuffled amongst different line mates as DeBoer has consistently done all year when the team is stagnant on any given night. It would seem to make perfect sense here to give Vlasic and Braun more favorable matchups as a pair and pass on the additional minutes to the likes of Burns, Karlsson, Dillon, and Simek. 44 and 61 would still likely see significant action on the penalty kill even if not matched up against their opponent’s top line every night during even strength play. Facing lesser competition, one would hope any gaffes are far less costly and noticeable. If play improves, you increase Vlasic’s role again as appropriate. Essentially, you let his play dictate his ice time.
Admittedly, this is not a typical situation given Vlasic’s history and stature in San Jose and around the league. This approach would unquestionably send louder shockwaves than normal as a result. DeBoer and his staff may want to avoid bringing additional attention to the problem by giving the media even more fodder here. There’s also a very real possibility Vlasic reacts poorly to the demotion and it further erodes what is almost certainly shaky confidence at the moment.
Calculated Risk Option: Scratch him
Let’s be clear here, by no means should anyone anticipate or suggest Vlasic be replaced in the lineup on a permanent or even short-term basis. The idea here is to scratch Vlasic for one or two games in favor of Joakim Ryan (who plays a very similar game) purely as a wakeup call. What better motivation than to light a fire under someone’s behind so to speak? Perhaps it’s simply the evolution of 21st century sports that star players are more often catered to than challenged by their coach and organization.
While this age-old tactic has seemingly become less and less common around the league, there is recent precedence for it. Ironically, it was an October 10th game vs San Jose that the Rangers scratched top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. Shattenkirk was the premier defenseman available via free agency in July of 2017 so it’s about as comparable of a situation you can find talent wise to Vlasic in this scenario. However, the Sharks and DeBoer historically have played things cautiously with these situations in the past. It would go completely against their DNA to make such a bold and brash statement. This is a coach that is generally hesitant to call out any star players even in post-game scrums with the media. If you think reducing ice time will draw public attention and Vlasic’s ire, this approach would almost certainly guarantee it. The risk is potentially much higher than the reward here.
Nuclear Option: Trade him
If the Sharks determine Vlasic’s decline isn’t correctable and is ultimately a byproduct of their current roster or system, they could consider pursuing a trade. Any trade would have to be approved by Vlasic as the 8-year extension he signed in 2017 includes a full no-move clause until the 2023-24 season, at which time he can choose 3 teams he is willing to be traded to. So, for all intents and purposes, Vlasic controls his own destiny here.
The one trade destination that would make a lot of sense is his hometown club, the Montreal Canadiens. Vlasic would likely relish playing for his childhood team and the Habs would almost certainly be glad to add him to what is currently a subpar defensive corps.
What could the Sharks possibly get in return for him? The $7M cap hit Vlasic will carry through his age 39 season in 2025-26 along with his abysmal season to date would undoubtedly diminish his trade value. If the Sharks were to take this unlikeliest of routes, it would be more about shedding the problem and cap hit than anything. The cap space would come in handy as they try to lock up Erik Karlsson. Any additional assets they gained on top of the cap space would be an added bonus.
There is of course a slew of risks with this option. You could potentially lose both Vlasic and Karlsson in the matter of only a few months, leaving your d-corps in shambles after Brent Burns. Vlasic could quickly find his form again and make the Sharks regret breaking up what many expected to be a three headed monster on the blue line going into the season. They would also be counting on a still young and unproven Joakim Ryan to step into a significant role. San Jose's depth on the back end would suddenly go from a strength to a question mark over night.
All of the above points and his stature alone make a trade extremely unlikely. We’re talking less than a 5% chance here and that may be generous.
So, there you have it, a full rundown of what options the Sharks have to get Vlasic out of the funk he is in. What will DeBoer, Wilson, and company do? Only time will tell. One thing is for certain, this problem has to be addressed for the Sharks to have any reasonable shot at hoisting Lord Stanley this summer.