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A Long Fermenting Process

by Tony Khing / San Jose Sharks
Time, patience and the right ingredients are necessary to turn a cucumber into a pickle.

Vancouver Canucks' Tanner Glass, center, trips over San Jose Sharks' Antti Niemi, right, of Finland, while being checked by Marc-Edouard Vlasic during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darryl Dyck)
These three factors have played a role in how defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s (aka Pickles) game has evolved during the season from a raw vegetable to a crunchy treat.

Vlasic’s low point was on Nov. 24. In his first 19 games, he had zero points – no goals and no assists. Vlasic was a minus-10 and was averaging slightly more than one blocked shot (1.32) per game.

Fast forward to March. Through games of March 23, Vlasic had played in 54 games since Nov. 24. Over that stretch, he scored 14 points (two goals and 12 assists) and was blocking nearly two shots (1.96) per game.

“I don’t think he liked the start he had,” said Assistant Coach Trent Yawney, who’s responsible for the defensemen.

And over the last four months, Vlasic has made up for his slow start.

“He’s much more assertive in his one-on-one play and around the net,” Yawney said. “He also has a lot more poise with the puck. He’s making more plays.”

“Since the end of December,” Vlasic said, “I’ve been joining the rush more, getting pucks through more and being more physical and aggressive. I’ve been more assertive and confident with the puck.”

A key stat which shows Vlasic’s improvement is his plus-minus. He’s now a plus-8, obviously way better than being a minus-10. Those numbers haven’t escaped Yawney’s attention.

“The most impressive thing to date is at one point,” Yawney said, “he was at double-digits in the minus column. Now, he’s close to double-digits in the plus column. That stat can be skewed a little bit, but it’s reflective of the work he’s put in and the credit he deserves.”

San Jose Sharks center Torrey Mitchell, center, is embraced by defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44) as center Kyle Wellwood approaches after Mitchell's goal against the Calgary Flames during the second period of an NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, March 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Since the Christmas holidays, Vlasic has worked on keeping his game simple, which is reflected in his numbers. “A commitment to defense helps the offense tremendously,” he said. “I’ve been working on my shot and getting pucks through. That’s how things have changed.”

That defensive part of Vlasic’s game gets the opponent’s attention. “He loves to defend,” Yawney said. “It’s something that comes natural to him. As far as shutting people down, he’s very good at it. He’s one of the top shutdown defensemen in the National Hockey League.”

But according to Yawney, Vlasic’s offensive skills need to show themselves more frequently. “We still want to get his offensive game more consistent in terms of getting his shots through and having the confidence to play on the power play and in those offensive situtations,” Yawney said. “He can do it. He’s made some strides, but there’s still some work to do.”

Besides those skills, Vlasic is at the point of his career where he needs to become a leader on the blue line. While Vlasic will turn 24 on March 30, he’s played more than 300 NHL regular season games in five seasons. Fortunately, Vlasic had Rob Blake as his teammate for two years and as his defensive partner last year. One can’t help but learn from a future Hockey Hall of Famer.

“He’s taken a lot from Blakey,” Yawney said. “He’s starting to apply that to his game now. He’s at the stage in his career where he has to provide that leadership to other players, such as the Jason Demers and Justin Brauns.”

Vlasic said he learned from Blake how to be confident and have poise. “He was a great guy in the room,” Vlasic said.

He also learned from Blake about leadership. Part of being a leader is knowing one’s limitations. “I’m still one of the youngest guys – third youngest,” said Vlasic, who’s only older than Logan Couture (21) and Demers (22). “I know I’ve been here for a long time. I still think of myself as a young guy, but I have a lot of experience.

“I work out with Jason in the summer and we have the same agent,” Vlasic added. “I’ll help him out if he needs it.”

The process may have been slow, but there was plenty of perseverance and help along the way. As the drive to the playoffs comes to a close and the postseason begins, there’s no doubt Vlasic’s game is full of flavor and a lot of crunch.

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