Sharks’ Vlasic quietly assumes place among top defencemen

Sharks defenceman Marc-Édouard Vlasic discusses the feeling of going to the Stanley Cup Finals, and how great it is to see guys like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau finally get rewarded for their hard work.

PITTSBURGH — Marc-Edouard Vlasic doesn’t care if anyone knows his name.

The San Jose blue-liner was one of the first four defencemen named to the Canadian World Cup team and a key member of Canada’s gold medal-winning squad at the 2014 Olympics. But while he’s built a widely respected reputation within the game, Vlasic remains far less known to those outside of it.

On his own NHL team alone, it’s the goofy but effective Brent Burns who draws most of the recognition on defence, even if Vlasic mirrors his importance to the Sharks.

“I’m here to play my game, help the team win,” Vlasic said. “If I get credit or I don’t I’m not worried about that. I get it from the players, the coaches, the GMs throughout the league. That’s the No. 1 thing. In order to make teams (like Canada) the GMs have to like the way you play and that’s where I get my credit.”

Teammates believe the combination of Vlasic’s simple style and the market he plays in limits his exposure to fans and media, who rarely mention the Montreal native’s name when listing off the top defenders in the game.

“When people wake up on the East Coast and they watch highlights he might not be on there for a good stick, a blocked shot or shutting guys down all night,” said Justin Braun, his defensive partner. “They just show goals and saves. So I think that gets overlooked.

“He’d probably be known as one of the best shutdown D-men in the league (if he played in a major market), more than he already is.”

Vlasic is tasked with combating some of the league’s scariest offensive players, a playoff slate that’s included Jeff Carter, Vladimir Tarasenko, and now, in the Stanley Cup final, Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby.

Vlasic and Braun held Blues forward Tarasenko pointless for five-and-a-half games of a six-game Western Conference final win. But the Penguins got the edge on the duo in a 3-2 victory in Game 1 on Monday.

Backing in on an incoming Justin Schultz, Vlasic blocked his shot attempt only to have the carom land directly on the stick of Bryan Rust, who scored the game’s first goal. Vlasic was hampered by Patric Hornqvist in front of the Sharks crease as he tried to block Conor Sheary‘s 2-0 marker.

Sheary was fed on the play by Crosby, who made a wicked backhand pass.

Vlasic’s game is predicated on elements that don’t pop off the screen. He’s known among teammates and opponents for his smarts, positioning, stickwork, shot-blocking and his effective first pass from the defensive zone to spring the Sharks’ dangerous attack.

“It’s the whole package,” Braun said. “As a coach you can’t ask for much more from a (defenceman).”

Teammate Paul Martin describes him a “take-care-of-business kind of guy.”

He’s also won praise from an elite opponent.

“Just smart. Really smart,” Crosby said of Vlasic. “He’s not the most physical guy, but he’s really good with his stick. He can block shots when he needs to. But I think just his hockey IQ, he doesn’t need to work hard necessarily, he works smart.”

Picked 34 spots apart in the 2005 draft, Vlasic and Crosby are familiar foes from the Quebec Major Junior League. Vlasic’s Quebec Remparts were in the same division as Crosby’s Rimouski Oceanic.

Crosby said Vlasic is the same now as he was then: little-known but effective. Crosby remembers other QMJHL players drawing more scouts ahead of the draft. Twelve were picked before Vlasic, who went 35th overall to the Sharks.

The 29-year-old has played more NHL games than every one of the 12 selected before him.

“He probably didn’t get a lot of credit for how good he was in junior,” Crosby said. “His game hasn’t changed.”

Vlasic said he’s worked on being a better defender, shooter and offensive contributor. He hit a career-high with 39 points in only 67 games during the regular season thanks to increased power-play time.

The numbers back up Vlasic’s effectiveness in the shutdown role. Despite tough matchups, Vlasic has the best puck possession mark of any Sharks defender this spring (52 per cent).

Perhaps, on this big stage, respect will grow for one of the league’s more useful defenders.

“People who know the game see how good he is,” Braun said, “and it’s truly fun to watch when you really know what you’re looking for.”

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