It’s an intriguing question — especially since at this time last year, we didn’t have one clue that Vlasic’s rookie campaign would warrant such an inquiry 12 months later.
To recap: he was the surprise of the Sharks preseason. He convincingly made the team out of training camp, started strong, displayed maturity on the blueline all season and played major minutes for a Stanley Cup contender. All of this as a 19-year-old rookie playing one of the toughest-to-learn positions in the sport, mind you.
All told, he showed a level of talent the Sharks haven’t seen from a first-year defenseman for some time, arguably since Brad Stuart, or maybe even as far back as Marcus Ragnarsson. Or maybe ever.
So, what can “Pickles” do for an encore?
If you follow the NHL, you know it’s not a hot-button storyline as the League enters a new year. Heck, it’s not even a concern for the Sharks front office — Vlasic has already earned high praise for his consistency. But, the question is definitely on the mind of Vlasic himself, as Sharks Magazine’s Ben Stephenson discovered when he sat down with the second-year rearguard during training camp.
Is it hard to believe that at this time last year, you were suiting up for your first NHL games? Does it seem like forever ago?
It does feel like a long time ago. But I’ve had to put it in the back of my mind because, this season, I’m going to have a lot more responsibilities that I have to take care of.
Did you feel at all like 19 last season? Yes and no. It sure felt like I was 19 when some of the other guys started talking about how old they were, that’s for sure (smiles). But, I really don’t think about it now. I’m just one of the guys out on the ice. You know, no matter if a teammate is 40 or 20, I feel like I fit in.
How have you put last season’s success into context in terms of how you’ve prepared for 2007-08? Last year went very well, but this year, they (the Sharks) are expecting a lot more out of me. I understand that and want to bring everything I learned last season into this one.
It’s interesting to note you left junior hockey with Hockey Hall of Fame netminder Patrick Roy as your coach. Did he give you any parting advice on your way to the NHL? He helped me out defensively from an NHL goaltender’s point of view, in telling me how they see the game.
Do you recall the first in-game moment where it really hit you that you hit the big-time?
Probably during my first preseason game. It just felt like an NHL atmosphere.
Your rookie situation was unique in that you were a young player, a defenseman no less, playing quality minutes on a contender…
It certainly wasn’t a typical situation a rookie would find himself in. But I was glad I could go out and prove to the coaches I can play. And that was the only way I was going to get minutes, by me playing well and forcing them to keep me out there.
As a young defenseman known for his stability more than his offensive flash, is it tough to quantify success on the ice when goals and assists aren’t a major factor in the equation? If I put up numbers, that’s fine. For me, though, it’s not about numbers. As long as the coaches and players I’m playing with are happy with my performance and I keep doing the little things in the defensive zone, that’s what matters.
Describe your comfort level from the beginning of last season to the end. At the beginning, I tried not to do too much. As the season went on, I felt more comfortable and tried to do a little bit more each time out. And this year, I’ll try to do a little bit more as well, but I’m not going to put my team in a hole. If an opportunity is there, I’ll take it.
Younger players and team executives are always wary of a rookie hitting a “wall” caused from playing more games in one year than they’re used to. Did you experience that last season? I didn’t feel it at all. I was used to playing a lot of minutes coming straight from juniors. In my final season, we played more than 100 games with going to the Memorial Cup and I was playing 30-35 minutes each time out.
What’s it feel like to play that many minutes in one night?
It just feels like you’re always out on the ice.
What’s it mean to you that the front office didn’t feel the need to trade or acquire a big-name defenseman, or even just another veteran blueliner, especially with Scott Hannan leaving in free agency (Colorado), in the offseason? It surprised me they didn’t go out and get anyone. But it also told me they have a lot of confidence in my abilities and are asking me and the rest of the young guys to step it up this year.
Any added pressure for you in that sense?
Oh yeah, they’ll be extra pressure on me. Hannan filled a big role on defense last season and it’s going to take a group effort to fill that hole this year.
Is it nice to be a young defenseman and have this team’s corps of blueliners be considered “young” as well? Oh, sure. It’s always nice to have a couple of people around your age. “Matty” (Carle) and Christian (Ehrhoff) are young and Kyle (McLaren) and “Riv” (Craig Rivet) are veterans. I think it’s good to have that kind of mix on the blueline.
Is there one “leader” of this team’s defensive group? I don’t think there’s one individual person. If something has to be said, someone will say it. We consider ourselves a group.
How was the first summer of your NHL career? It was pretty quiet. I went on vacation for a week to the Dominican Republic (Punta Cana) and after that, I just trained for the upcoming season.
And how did you like the Dominican?
Too hot. I don’t think I’d go back. I’m picking somewhere cooler to go next time.
Did you change anything in your offseason training regimen?
No. I just did the same thing last year and worked to be better in every way I could.
As a young guy, perhaps one who isn’t as exposed to the business side of hockey yet, how did you perceive the front office’s efforts to secure Joe Thornton
, Milan Michalek and Patrick Marleau
to long-term contract extensions? I know the organization likes the guys they have a lot and want to hang on to them. Seeing the big contracts they signed are nice, for sure. If everything goes well for me, in the next few seasons that could be me. San Jose is a nice place to play and I’d like to stay here.
How pivotal is this season in terms of your growth as a hockey player? It’s a big year for me. You know, there’s going to be a lot of expectations and responsibilities I have to fulfill. My goal has always been to try and improve every single year because if you’re not improving, you might as well be going down hill. Last year, I had a great season. This year, I’m going to have an even better one.
How pivotal is this season for this team’s growth? Last season, we were obviously disappointed with how the year ended. The organization and the players here really want a Stanley Cup. We’re going to learn from our mistakes and take that into this season.
What’s next for you? Just do more, across the board: be more physical; be better defensively; be better offensively; not worry about my offensive production, but still contribute; force the coaches to use me on the power play and play more on the penalty kill. Just be better in every situation.
Ben Stephenson has written more than 40 features for Sharks Magazine since 1998. His On the Fly interviews appear in every issue.