Minutes after the blockbuster trade for Erik Karlsson was announced individuals who cover the league and fans alike were already speculating whether or not the San Jose Sharks possess the best defensive group in the NHL. Much of that hype was circulating around what could be possible with Marc-Edouard Vlasic lined up on the left side of the Swedish superstar.
They’ve been deployed jointly on the ice for approximately 17 and half minutes per game over the course of the first eight contests. Coach Pete DeBoer seems to have already dubbed them as his shutdown pair here in the early stages of the season. Most of the time these two are out against the opposing teams best players.
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Marc-Edouard Vlasic has a reputation of being arguably the leagues best shut down defensemen. He and his former partner Justin Braun made their reputation in the defensive zone.
For Erik Karlsson, being the two time Norris Trophy winner has built his notoriety around the league as the best overall defensemen. So the combination of the two is something out of a dream, and they have been as good as advertised thus far in the early stages of this season.
The pair has been amazing to watch. Even with the small sample size, they have shown their hockey prowess in all 3 zones.
When the Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Erik Karlsson pairing is on the ice they make zone entries seem effortless. They are the only pairing on the San Jose Sharks with a sub .50 ZSR (Zone Start Ratio) of 0.46, stats per Corsica Pairing Tool. The ZSR stat is a good representation of how balanced a groups usage is. For comparisons sake the Joakim Ryan/Brent Burns coupling’s ZSR is a ridiculous 0.84, with only 8.7% of their starts beginning in the defensive zone.
For a visual representation of this disparity in zone usage between the defensive pairings, we can use the Hockeyviz shift start location diagram produced by Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath). You notice that Karlsson’s name is closer to the right which is a result of his heavy 5v5 utilization, and he still starts many of his shifts outside of the offensive zone.
Pete DeBoer appears to strongly depend on their ability to transition the puck into the offensive zone. Even with the lack of starts inside the opponents end of the ice they have been a huge part of the San Jose Sharks dominant start of possessing the puck and out chancing their opponents.
For being deployed like a shut down pairing the two of them still continue to create a large amount of offensive zone pressure. The MEV/EK65 pairing are responsible for 58.22 SF% over the first eight games, per Corsica Hockey. They’ve generated 84 Scoring Chances For, while controlling 61.24% of the scoring chances when on the ice together, per naturalstattrick.
Karlsson’s ability to trek the puck through the neutral zone has been phenomenal to watch and something San Jose Sharks fans could get used to over the remainder of the season and into the playoffs.
Their also liable for a considerable amount of dangerous looks at the opposing teams netminder. Over 8 games they’ve manufactured 31 High Danger Scoring Chances, while maintaining a 52.27 HDCF%, per naturalstattrick.
This is impressive considering they are constantly being buried outside of their own zone. It’s pretty remarkable that these two are tasked with playing a 200 foot game and are still able to get into excellent scoring positions.
Not only do they generate tons of shots on goal and dangerous scoring chances, they are also producing points on the scoreboard. According to Corsica Hockey, the newly formed defensive duo places 5th in the entire league with 3.76 xGF/60. They are also 3rd among defensive pairings in xGF with 9.08. They only trail two very potent offensive defenseman duos in the Dumba/Suter pair for the Wild and the Hamilton/Slavin duo in Carolina. Both of these pairings receive more offensive zone starts on average than the San Jose Sharks combo of MEV/EK65.
The most outstanding thing about these two are that they’ve only been together for 10 games if we include the couple preseason games Karlsson was put on the ice. These two have already formed into one of the most impactful pairings in the entire league during their short time together. It’s what all of us expected from them but it’s still eye-opening to see what these two are capable of doing on the ice together.
Over the course of the season they will continue to formulate this already percolating chemistry with one another by learning each others tendencies and preferable spots on the ice. I have no doubt in my mind that these two will become the best defensive pairing in the league, living up to the hype we saw during training camp.
The blockbuster trade happened over a month ago and I am still having trouble getting over the fact that EK65 is a member of Team Teal. But I’m taking it game by game and relishing every minute of it. Hopefully you all are enjoying the ride thus far in the early stages of the season.