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Sharks' Vlasic finds spotlight with his effective ways

by Eric Gilmore

SAN JOSE -- While playing hockey as a young boy in Montreal, San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic was different from most of the other kids on the ice, who loved scoring goals and racking up points.

Vlasic produced plenty of points, but what drove him was his absolute hatred for giving up goals.

"I wasn't big on points," Vlasic said after a morning skate at SAP Center. "I did get a lot growing up, but I remember between 7 and 11 or maybe even earlier that that, every time I was on the ice for a goal against I'd cry because I hate being minus. I was big on making sure that didn't happen. It's still big for me."

He doesn't cry as much these days, but not much else has changed in Vlasic's approach to the game. He still despises giving up goals.

Vlasic grew up to become one of the most reliable, consistent and stingy defensemen in the NHL. This season he led the Sharks with a career-high plus-minus, spending most of his time on the ice matched up against the most dangerous offensive threats in the NHL.

At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Vlasic earned a gold medal with a Canadian team that allowed only three goals in six games and never trailed. He was in the lineup all six games, paired with the Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty, who led Canada with four goals and six points.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Defense - SJS
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 19 | PTS: 24
SOG: 138 | +/-: 31
"His nickname's Eddie, steady Eddie," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "He gets out there and he plays very important, very hard minutes without erring. I think his stamina is exceptional, his ability to read and play in any type of environment is very good. We're very lucky to have him."

Vlasic, 27, is in his eighth NHL season and has already played 600 regular-season games, but until this year he was basically San Jose's secret weapon. That was before he made the Canadian team for the Olympics then earned a permanent spot in coach Mike Babcock's lineup.

As the Canadian team approached its quarterfinals game against Latvia, Babcock raved about Vlasic, saying he's "way better" than most people realize.

"He's a really, really good player," Babcock said at the time. "Doughty gets to do anything he wants and Vlasic is always in a great spot. He's a good defender, he's become harder. He used to be a thin kid. Now he's a thick man. He's hard, he's smart, he skates, he moves the puck and he's safe."

Vlasic sounds both amused and amazed that it took him eight years in the NHL to "get recognized" outside of San Jose for being an elite defenseman. Even so, he said he was surprised when he learned he had made the Olympic team, simply because there are so many great Canadian defensemen.

"Once I was over there and started practicing with the guys, played a couple games, I knew I belonged with those guys," Vlasic said. "Just being around all those players, the best in the world, the way they carry themselves, was a huge boost to my confidence and helped me grow as a player.

"The Olympics were an unbelievable experience. It was awesome. There's nothing like it, and especially to come back with a gold medal is pretty incredible. Since the Olympic break I feel my game has gone up a notch. I feel more confident out there, with and without the puck."

Sharks defenseman Justin Braun said a lot of people outside of the West Coast were "shocked" when Vlasic made Canada's Olympic team because they haven't watched him play often enough.

"He's not that offensive, flashy player, but he's a guy that will shut down any type [of] line," Braun said. "That's what you have in the Olympics, and that's what they got him for. That's what he did. He looked great out there, taking care of Doughty out there. It was great to watch him."

Sharks defenseman Jason Demers, Vlasic's partner for much of the season, played against him in minor hockey then in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Demers said Vlasic still plays the same dependable, error-free style he played as a kid.

"We all used to call him The Robot because he'd just never make a mistake and he was calculated in how he played," Demers said, recalling their QMJHL days. "I don't think he's changed at all over the years.

"He's an unbelievable player. You know what you're getting night in and night out. We harp on it a lot, but it's consistency that's made him such a good player. To night in and night out play that way and play elite, it's great to see."

The Sharks chose Vlasic in the second round (No. 35) of the 2005 NHL Draft. One season later, he made the team as a 19-year-old and played 81 games for the Sharks as a rookie, making the NHL's All-Rookie team.

Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan was Vlasic's first partner. Vlasic also skated with Rob Blake, an elite-level defenseman who is now the Kings' assistant general manager, early in his career.

"When he first got here he was the same type of player," Hannan said. "Poised under pressure, never really got rattled, skated well, saw the play well, read the play well. And I think that's only grown as a player. He keeps adding a little more and becoming better at the things he does.

"He's not somebody you're going to look at the end of the night and see all the points on the score sheet, but you always know that he's had a solid game. His plus-minus is always good. He's very steady. He's a calming influence out there on the blue line."

Vlasic's game has followed a steady upward arc since he began his NHL career as a teenager. He's become bigger, stronger and more experienced.

"I want to get better every year," Vlasic said. "For me if you're not getting better -- because everybody else is getting better -- you're actually getting worse. Every year, I try to improve my skating, my shot and my strength. Every year, I try to create more offensively, try to join the rush more, always without taking risk, but in the right time creating without giving anything up."

Vlasic, of course, won't do anything that increases the risk of giving up a goal. That's a big reason he has a plus-minus rating that’s off the charts.

"It's a point of pride to have a plus-30 and to play against the top players," Vlasic said. "That's huge. When you play [Sidney] Crosby, [Patrice] Bergeron, [Rick] Nash, [Jonathan] Toews and you end up plus-30, you're doing something right; because you could easily be minus against [Alex] Ovechkin, [Phil] Kessel, [Ryan] Getzlaf and all those guys. So to be plus-30 against those guys and every other top player in the League is what I pride myself on."

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