DeBoer: Sharks D Corps Stacks Up With Predators Vaunted Blue Line
SAN JOSE — As the hockey world gushes over the Nashville Predators vaunted blue line, head coach Peter DeBoer reaffirmed his confidence in the Sharks defensive corps.
Although the Predators defense led the NHL in scoring from the backend this season, the Sharks think their blue line is as deep as any in the league with the addition of Roman Polak prior to the trade deadline, a key matchup heading into Game 1 of the squads second-round Stanley Cup playoffs series at the SAP Center on Friday.
“I like our defense corps,” DeBoer said. “We’ve got as good a defense corps as anybody in the league, one to six.”
“Our team’s about depth, and our one to six, I would stack up with anybody.”
These words wouldn’t have slipped out of DeBoer’s mouth if he was behind the Sharks bench last season.
As the Sharks wrapped up their first non-playoff campaign in more than a decade last April, the holes on the team’s defense were glaringly obvious.
Besides the formidable shutdown paring of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, the Sharks used a lot of duct tape to keep the blue line together last season, a key reason why the team finished 24th in a goals-against average (2.76).
How porous was the Sharks defense?
Consider this: Scott Hannan suited up for 58 games last year at the ripe age of 36. He’s since retired because no other team was willing to give him a sniff after the Sharks opted to not resign him.
Mirco Mueller skated in 39 games last year, including the season opener, as a 19-year-old rookie. He spent all but 11 games in the AHL this year, skating on the Barracuda’s third pairing for most of the second half.
Matt Irwin saw action in 53 games last year. He also spent the 2015-16 season in the AHL, logging 64 games with the Providence Bruins after spending the first two games in the NHL with the parent club.
In addition to Hannan, Mueller and Irwin, the Sharks defensive corps featured Brent Burns, who was adjusting to his return to the blue line after one-and-a-half seasons at forward, and Brenden Dillon, a young defenseman who was learning the Sharks system on the fly after being acquired in a midseason trade.
Now, the Sharks defense isn’t just deep, it’s versatile.
The Sharks added a reliable stay-at-home defenseman to compliment Brent Burns by bringing in Paul Martin over the summer, and they threw a pinch of physicality into the mix by acquiring Polak in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 22. Polak threw the third-most hits (303) in the NHL this season.
As a result, the team now boasts a shutdown pairing with Braun and Vlasic, a bruising pairing with Dillon and Polak and an offensively-prolific pairing with Martin and Burns, who set franchise records for goals (27) and points (75) in a season while recording an astounding 353 shots on goal.
“Every guy on the backend has a different quality,” alternate captain Logan Couture said.
“Burnzie’s up in the rush. Paulie Martin stays at home. Pollie and Dillie are physical. Picks (Vlasic) is as reliable as they come and Braunie moves pucks. He’s a great skater, so it’s nice to have six guys who all do something very well.”
Couture said his team’s blue line stacks up with the other Sharks corps he’s played with since joining the league during the 2009-10 season.
“It’s up there,” he said. “It reminds me of a couple of years ago when we had Nick [Wallin] and Ian [White] as a pair, that was 2011. A little bit better than that group. That was a good group, so our backend is a strength of ours.”
While the Sharks defensive corps might be under-appreciated to the outside world, the Predators are acutely aware of how dangerous the group can be, especially in the offensive zone.
“They’ve got some toughness and some size on the backend,” Predators head coach Peter Laviolette said. “They generate a lot of their offense from their defensemen, as do we. I’m not sure we do it in exactly the same way, but part of their offensive strength comes from their backend.”
Center Ryan Johansen said the Polak trade rounded out the Sharks defensive corps.
“I’ve been in the league for five years, so I’ve gotten to know him (Polak) in the corners, in front of the net quite a bit. He’s hard to play against,” he said. “He’s a guy who plays a really heavy game, strong and makes people pay for trying to make plays and get to the net.”
Although the Sharks are confident in their blue line, it doesn’t mean they’re overlooking the Predators group, which features a slew of speedy, puck-moving players, like Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm.
“They’ve got a good backend,” Couture said. “They jump up in the rush, they put up a lot of points.”
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