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Sharks' Vlasic making case for Olympic spot

Tuesday, 10.29.2013 / 9:46 AM / 2014 Olympics

By Arpon Basu - Managing Editor LNH.com

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Sharks' Vlasic making case for Olympic spot
An improved offensive game and his status as a left-handed shot may help unheralded San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic claim a spot on Canada's team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

The San Jose Sharks were playing what has become a typically dominant game for them in Montreal on Saturday, except the one area they weren't dominating was the one that counts -- the scoreboard.

Up 1-0 late in the second period despite controlling long stretches of the game, Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi had not seen much action over the first half of the period, but his net was under siege late in the second with the Montreal Canadiens buzzing around seeking the tying goal.

With just under three minutes remaining in the period, Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban got the puck at the blue line and took a shot on goal that deflected wide but right on to the stick of Montreal center David Desharnais, who attempted to tuck it in the wide-open short side of the net with Niemi caught out of position.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Defense - SJS
G: 2 | A: 7 | P: 9
SOG: 15 | +/-: 11
But just as it appeared Desharnais would have an easy goal, he was met by the strong stick of Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who kept the puck out with a heady defensive play to maintain San Jose's 1-0 lead.

The Sharks would double that lead on Logan Couture's second goal of the game early in the third period on a fluky bounce off the glass, and afterward most of the credit for the 2-0 victory being sprinkled around the San Jose dressing room was reserved for Couture and Niemi.

But that play by Vlasic may have been the game's most important, even if it went largely unnoticed, making it a perfect representation of Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

Vlasic is one of the NHL's most quietly reliable defensemen, a valuable asset to one of the League's best teams because he makes plays that win hockey games for the Sharks, even if they are often overshadowed by ones made by his more heralded teammates.

"He is a big part of our team," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "I thought six years ago when I started here, he was a very good defenseman. He was partnered with Rob Blake and was very comfortable with that. When Blake retired, it took him a little while to get used to playing with different people.

"Now, he's the go-to guy. He's the Rob Blake for us."

Already in his eighth NHL season at age 26, Vlasic has played 531 of the 552 Sharks games since the start of the 2006-07 season, and he's finished a season as a minus player just once in his career. This season, according to data collected by the site ExtraSkater.com, Vlasic has spent close to 200 minutes on the ice at even strength in 12 games playing against the toughest competition on the team and has had to fish the puck out of his own net just five times.

In spite of his status on the Sharks, Vlasic remains a largely unknown commodity among fans. But his progression did not go unnoticed by the management group for the Canadian Olympic team, making him one of the 17 defensemen invited to the team's orientation camp in Calgary in August.

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Of course, executive director Steve Yzerman will only be taking eight defensemen, at most, to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but Vlasic is making a strong case for being one of them with a solid start to the season and the chatter surrounding his potential inclusion on the team is starting to get louder.

"That's good," Vlasic said, "that means my game's stepping up and going in the right direction."

One factor that helps Vlasic a great deal is that he shoots from the left side, something that is sorely lacking among the top candidates for the Canadian team. Subban, Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo and Kris Letang are all right-hand shots, and there's a chance at least one of them doesn't make the team because of it.

On the left side, however, Duncan Keith is just about the only sure thing for Canada, and then there are a number of candidates behind him who are in competition for spots.

Right now, it would be hard to say Vlasic would not be leading the race for Canada's No 2 lefty-defenseman spot.

"You want to pick the best team available, and if the best wind up being six righties and two lefties, well that's the way it is," Vlasic said. "You've got to pick the best players, or you've got to pick the team in order to win.

"But there are not many lefties. So that's a good thing."

Vlasic has always been seen as a defensive defenseman, and the numbers bear that out. Vlasic had seven points in 48 games last season, and he established his career high of 36 points back in 2008-09. But this season Vlasic has added an offensive dimension to his skill set, and it took him just 10 games to reach eight points and pass his 48-game total of a season ago.

Vlasic has two goals and seven assists through 12 games, and some of the credit for the development of the offensive side of his game goes to the addition of Larry Robinson as an assistant coach last season.

Robinson had 958 points in 1,384 games over his Hall of Fame NHL career, and he has had an incredible influence on the entire Sharks defense. Vlasic is no exception.

"Just the other day, he was telling me how to shoot," Vlasic said with a laugh. "I've been shooting for 26 years, and he tells me my hand's too low. So little details like that he can improve your game with."

As far as Robinson's concerned, he sees no reason why Vlasic shouldn't be named to the Canadian team, and the international ice surface to be used at the Olympics is a big reason why. The two qualities Robinson likes most about Vlasic are his skating and his endurance, both vital tools to have on the big ice.

But more than those tangible attributes, the one Robinson likes most is that Vlasic is a big-game player.

"I'm not in charge of it, but if I were involved I'd certainly have him out there," Robinson said. "He's the type of guy where the more responsibility that you give him and the bigger the situation, the better he plays. To me, that epitomizes what a great hockey player is, or what an exceptional defenseman is -- somebody that can play in the big games or play under pressure. Anybody can play when things are going well."

Things have been going very well for Vlasic and the Sharks this season, so much so that what may have once felt like an unexpected compliment being invited to Canada's orientation camp in August has now given way to bigger aspirations.

"I was ‘wow' when I got [to the orientation camp], the 17 defensemen that were there are the best in the country," Vlasic said. "Now I feel I have my place on that team the way I've been playing, and if I keep playing that way and stepping up my game I believe I'll contend to be a part of that team."

2014 OLYMPICS POLL