June 22, 2015 By Paul Gackle

Will The Sharks Top Defensemen See More Ice Time Next Season?

SAN JOSE — One of the most intriguing story lines in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs was the Chicago Blackhawks ability to make due with a depleted blue line.

After Michal Rozsival fractured his left ankle in Game 4 of the Blackhawks second round sweep of the Minnesota Wild, head coach Joel Quenneville leaned heavily on his top four defensemen, handing them roughly 85 percent of the minutes on the team’s blue line over the last 13 games of the playoffs. He just didn’t trust Kyle Cumiskey, David Rundblad or Kimmo Timonen with the Stanley Cup on the line.

The move paid off. The Blackhawks won their third cup in six years, raising the question, why don’t more NHL teams employ this strategy?

Despite their defensive woes, the San Jose Sharks split up their blue line minutes quite evenly last season. Brent Burns led the way, averaging 23 minutes and 53 seconds of ice time a night. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the team’s most reliable blue liner, logged just 22 minutes and six seconds per game, while third pairing defensemen, like Scott Hannan, Mirco Mueller and Matt Tennyson, each saw at least 16 minutes of ice time per night when they played.

Heck, even Karl Stollery received 18 minutes and two seconds per outing during a five-game call up at the end of the season.

Of course, the Blackhawks rolled with four defensemen out of necessity for a limited number of games at the tail end of the year. It isn’t a strategy suited for the 82-game grind known as the NHL regular season.

Nevertheless, the Sharks might have mitigated some of the damage suffered in the defensive zone last season by giving a few more minutes to Vlasic, Braun and Burns while hiding an aging veteran, like Hannan, or a 19-year-old rookie, such as Mueller, with reduced ice time.

A healthy Vlasic could easily play 26 or 27 minutes a night (keep in mind, Vlasic’s health was in question for a large chunk of the 2014-15 season).

Will the Sharks top defensemen gain more responsibility under head coach Peter DeBoer next season?

The answer to this question won’t be clear until the 2015-16 Sharks take the ice.

But general manager Doug Wilson suggested that Vlasic and Burns are both capable of taking on bigger workloads at his recent pre-draft session with reporters.

“Certain players have the aptitude and style of play to play a lot of minutes,” Wilson said. “I think it’s easier to play more minutes if you’re a certain type of guy. Like a Vlasic can play a lot of minutes. Burns is probably better in more minutes.”

Wilson also noted that West Coast teams need to be more careful when it comes to managing the minutes on their back ends because of the additional travel in their schedules. He said efficient-skating blue liners, like Vlasic, Braun and Burns, are more capable of logging big minutes.

“Do I think we have defensemen who can play a lot of minutes? Yeah, we do. We do,” Wilson said.

The Blackhawks managed to get away with playing four defensemen in the playoffs, in part, because they had the personnel to do so. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are horses, which is why cornerstone defensemen are so valuable in the modern NHL.

“They’re hard to find,” Wilson said. “And that’s why when people get them, they’re not going to let them go.”

With that being said, the Sharks might get more value out of their first-round pick in this week’s draft if they select one of two franchise defensemen who could be available in the No.9 spot.

If the dominos fall the right way, the Sharks could land Brandon Wheat Kings defenseman Ivan Provorov, the most NHL-ready blue liner in this draft, with their first pick. But at No.9, Wilson is more likely to wind up with 17-year-old Zach Werenski if he decides to expend the pick on a defenseman.

Considering his youth, the Michigan Wolverines blue liner would be a long-term investment, requiring a few years of seasoning before he’s ready to play at the NHL level. But Werenski might have the brightest upside among defensemen available in this draft.

As to be expected, Wilson isn’t tipping his hand as to how the Sharks will use their first-round pick.

When asked whether the top defensemen — Boston College’s Noah Hanifin, Provorov and Werenski — are more valuable in this draft, Wilson said: “I can’t answer that question. It’s not the right time to answer that question.”

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