By Larry Wigge | NHL.com columnist
|Sharks' rookie defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic's has earned plenty of praise and ice time this season.
Think about it for a moment. Not too long now. Time’s up. You know the old saying: You snooze, you lose ... and the puck winds up in the net behind you.
Well, maybe it’s not an old saying. But in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the pace is frenzied and the stakes are at their highest, defensemen are asked to make split-second decisions. In their own end of the rink, they face physical challenges against the most powerful and skilled players in the world. Up the ice, they are asked to move the puck and create offense.
And when a rookie can step right in and look right at home under those conditions, well, you’ve got something very, very special.
Enter Marc-Edouard Vlasic
, who wound up playing 34 minutes, 25 seconds, more than any other player on either team in Game 1 of San Jose’s 5-4 double-overtime victory over the Nashville Predators. Coach Ron Wilson kept sending him out -- 55 shifts in all -- because that baby-faced kid (who just turned 20 on March 30) just happens to regularly wind up in the face of some of the most feared players in the NHL.
"The first time I ran into him when I was playing in St. Louis, I remember thinking how young he looked, but then I ran into him again and again," teammate Bill Guerin told me. "Obviously looks can be deceiving.
"Part of the problem with most kids is that they’re so young and they try to do too much. Consistency is so difficult. Not with this kid. He just seems to be so steady and smart."
Like in Game 1, when he used his oh-so-smart stick to poke the puck away from Predators star Peter Forsberg and quickly slide it up the ice to spring Sharks captain Patrick Marleau
for a breakaway. Or on any of the five blocked shots he was credited with.
"Vlasic has a subtle way of winning you over," said Sharks coach Ron Wilson, who used him for 22:20 in a Game 2 loss. "Ear to ear, he shows a lot more poise than our veteran defensemen. He’s cool, calm and collected."
That’s a complimentary way to say that Vlasic, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound defenseman who was the Sharks second-round pick, 35th overall, in the 2005 NHL draft, is smarter than the average 19- or 29-year-old defender.
The biggest surprise for Vlasic? "That I actually made the NHL at 19," he said. "When I went to training camp back in September, I expected to be back in junior hockey in a couple of weeks."
But he obviously believed in his goal -- and made it.
"It’s not a surprise to me that Marc-Edouard has done so well in San Jose," said Predators winger Alexander Radulov, who just happened to play on that same Quebec junior team with Vlasic the last two seasons and the one that won junior hockey’s Super Bowl, the Memorial Cup last season. "He played 30-35 minutes a game every night most of last season for us. He’s one of those D-men you can always count on. He’s always in the right position. He’s smart. He does everything well."
Vlasic led all defensemen in scoring in the playoffs and was fifth overall in the Quebec League. Not bad for a kid who many thought wasn’t flashy and couldn’t do this or couldn’t do that, eh?
He was so good, in fact, that Patrick Roy, who has seen a lot of pretty good defensemen play in front of him -- like Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe, Chris Chelios, Rod Langway, Ray Bourque, Rob Blake and Adam Foote to name a few -- wanted the youngster back at Quebec City this season.
Actually, Roy was on the phone back in September and October nearly every day, calling the Sharks to see when they would be returning Marc-Edouard Vlasic
to Quebec City.
Before this season began, I remember a former player-turned broadcaster telling me that Coach Wilson joked, "I think Patrick's finally lost our phone number. He was calling every day, asking, 'When's he coming back?' We'd be saying, 'Not today, not tomorrow,' and 'Maybe not at all.' We saw the phone light up and who was calling. After seeing Marc-Edouard for weeks, it was clear we were avoiding Patrick."
Until the Sharks dealt for Montreal defenseman Craig Rivet (32) at the trading deadline, none of their top six defenders were scheduled to be 30 until after the regular season. Kyle McLaren was 29 going on 30, Scott Hannan, 27, Christian Ehrhoff, 24, Matt Carle, 22, and Vlasic, 20. The mix seems perfect now after a long season of testing.
One day after Vlasic’s first Stanley Cup Playoff game, Wilson said, "We knew how good he was because he was excellent last year at training camp. Then we watched him play 30 to 35 minutes a game in the Memorial Cup. Still he’s so young. But it’s funny. At the end of training camp, I remember a meeting we had with all of our people -- scouts, coaches (General Manager) Doug Wilson. We asked them all to submit a list of players they thought should make our season-opening roster. It was no surprise that Vlasic’s name was on all of the lists."
"All the challenges I’ve had just help make this complete the dream I had when I watched those Montreal Canadiens games on the TV when I was younger," Vlasic said. "I wanted to be in the NHL. And now I can see what I went through and every game I’m more confident. I can handle the puck more and feel right being here, not too nervous."
Rookie? When young players get this far and do the things that Marc-Edouard Vlasic
has done, they don’t play like mistake-prone rookies. Just look back at last year’s playoffs when a fuzzy-faced Cam Ward led the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup and Ryan Miller nearly took his Buffalo Sabres to the Final. And names like Jason Pominville, Dustin Penner, Francois Beauchemin, Chris Kunitz and Ryan Getzlaf took on more meaning.
Vlasic’s teammates affectionately call him "Pickles". Even if his family has nothing to do with the famous pickle company, you can see how those around the San Jose Sharks are so sweet on a kid that plays defense like this one makes every day seem a little better.
LITTLE THINGS ARE BIG
Doing "the little things" tends to add up in a big way in the NHL. And doing these little things has worked for Marc-Edouard Vlasic
"The first thing you notice about him the way he uses his stick. That’s an art," coach Ron Wilson said. "You also notice what a great skater he is. He’s one of those defensemen -- sort of like Sergei Zubov (Dallas Stars veteran defenseman and offensive quarterback) -- who always seems to be in control and goes only as fast as he has to. That’s why he can play 35 minutes in a game and hardly break a sweat.
"Somewhere along the line, he learned the important little things."
Those little things that make a defenseman special -- like using his stick to defend and work the transition game as well, being able to turn on and off his tenacity at just the right moment, plus being able to elude vicious hits by on-rushing forwards -- were a part of Vlasic’s everyday hockey fix growing up, when he and his dad, Ed, would watch game after game on television, mostly the Canadiens, in their West Island home, just outside Montreal.
Ed Vlasic put his son on two-bladed skates when he was four, taught him to skate on a home-made sheet of ice in the backyard. And, though the kid played defense like his dad, who several times was an All-Star defenseman at McGill University from 1976 to 1981 (his uncle, John was a forward at McGill for one season), Marc-Edouard dreamed of the day he might play with the skills of Pavel Bure, his favorite player.
"I’d skate down the driveway and in my dreams I’d score the winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final," the younger Vlasic confessed.
But defense was Marc-Edouard’s cup of tea when he stepped on the ice to play and he thanks his dad for providing a tutorial for him every time they watched a game together.
"He could pick out things that he wanted me to learn," Vlasic smiled. "I can still can hear him say, ‘Did you see the way that guy made that play?’ or ‘Watch this guy’ before the defenseman stepped into a forward."
Best advice the younger Vlasic has ever received should come as no surprise that it came from dad.
"He said you should always believe you can do things that may seem out of reach," Vlasic told me. "He said, ‘A lot of guys have the talent, but if they don’t believe they can reach their goals -- they won’t.’ "
Ed Vlasic is now an engineer for a company called Pratt & Whitney, a Montreal firm that designs airplanes. His mom, Marie-Josee, is a physiotherapist. The hard work ethic for Vlasic clearly came from Marc-Edouard’s parents. It also got me to wondering what the youngster would be if he wasn’t a star rookie defenseman in the NHL.
"I’d still be in school, probably taking a bunch of courses in science, working toward being an engineer," he said. "My father taught me how important an education is."
It’s certainly even more clear that Marc-Edouard Vlasic
finished is smarter than his 20 years and finished Hockey 101 many years ago.
We’ve talked a lot about the intangibles that make Vlasic special. That mental toughness and intestinal fortitude is a part that only Marc-Edouard can speak to. Regardless of all the superlatives we’ve used to give you an idea of what makes Vlasic tick, there was once -- in fact twice -- the thought that this talented, young defenseman would never make it.
"You learn to challenge yourself because of what some people say about you," Vlasic said, shaking his head a little. "I remember when I was 14 ... a midget ... I heard some people say I wasn’t offensive, I wasn’t flashy, that I didn’t do this and I didn’t do that. They used that against me.
"I kind of laugh at it now, because the same things came up when I was getting ready to play junior hockey and no one wanted to draft me. One of my old coaches had to twist a lot of arms to get a team interested in picking me."
EVENING THE DEAL
Patrick Roy, Marc-Edouard Vlasic
's junior coach, isn’t the only famous name that Vlasic has been connected to in his brief, but starry-looking career. The other? Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary Flames star goaltender.
No there’s no chance that Vlasic will be playing in goal any time soon. The connection with Kiprusoff was sort of by osmosis: Marc-Edouard was the player the Sharks picked with the second-round pick San Jose acquired from the Flames for Kiprusoff -- in a trade that once looked like highway robbery for Calgary.
"I didn’t know that until a couple of days after the draft," Vlasic laughed. "My parents were on-line and looking at some of the stories about the draft and they found that item. Pretty neat, huh?"
Another challenge for Marc-Edouard? No, it’s just a piece of interesting trivia. Actually, the thing Vlasic remembers most about Kiprusoff is that he scored his first NHL goal -- in his seventh preseason game -- came against Kiprusoff in Calgary.
Just another of those many poised things that has the Sharks -- and a lot of other people -- talking about Vlasic.