A little more than a decade ago, the San Jose Sharks’ high-end teams were short-circuited by the Ducks almost-unfair defensive combination of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. In landing Erik Karlsson in a momentous trade on Thursday, San Jose now has an answer to that duo … and going further, one of the best defensive trios we’ve seen in ages.
Since the last lockout in 2012-13, Karlsson and Brent Burns won three of the past seven Norris Trophies (two to Karlsson, one to Burns). They’ve essentially gone toe-to-toe in fantasy leagues as the top defensemen, too, thanks to their tendency to fire buckets of pucks on net and score in ways you’d expect from forwards.
Consider that, since 2012-13, Karlsson (369) and Burns (346) easily lead all NHL defensemen in points. In fact, P.K. Subban is the only other defenseman who cracked 300, with 301. They also comprise two of the top three in goals for blueliners, with Burns being the only one with at least 100 (116).
The third member of the trio doesn’t enjoy the same level of glory, yet Marc-Edouard Vlasic might just be the glue that makes this stick together in a way that works on a triumphant level.
[Read up on the landmark trade here.]
In the most obvious terms, Vlasic is a left-handed defenseman, while Karlsson and Burns are both right-handed shots. More deeply, Vlasic and Burns have been used in massively opposed ways under head coach Peter DeBoer; “Pickles” has been jarred up in almost brutally defensive-minded matchups, while Burns is leveraged for offense in almost extreme ways. (The Athletic’s Tyler Dellow did a deep dive on this [sub required] about a year ago.)
The beauty of this addition is that Karlsson makes the Sharks more exciting in a combination of ways:
Fireworks: For casual fans – and everyone, too, honestly – San Jose will just be a blast to watch, from Burns’ blasts from all over the ice to Karlsson’s ability to impact virtually every aspect of their transition game.
At times with the Sharks and plenty of other top-heavy teams, there’s a feeling of mild boredom whenever the big dogs are on the bench. Depending upon how they’re deployed, it’s plausible that there won’t be many moments without one of Burns or Karlsson patrolling the Sharks blueline (and delightfully looking for opportunities to attack).
How it all works: Circling back to that point about deployment, hockey nerds get to geek out about how DeBoer mixes Karlsson, Burns, Vlasic, and other Sharks defensemen such as Justin Braun and Brenden Dillon.
One cannot help but wonder if the common coaching leaning toward handedness (accidentally summons Adam Oates) will play into this. How often will DeBoer put Burns and Karlsson on the ice at the same time, particularly at even strength?
You’ll really want to get your popcorn for Sharks power plays.
A ton of data suggests that NHL teams are almost always better off rolling with a power play that features four forwards and one defenseman (Matt Cane explains why at Hockey Graphs). One would figure that there are plenty of situations where all five forwards being out there would be a bold-yet-brilliant plan.
Personnel and context matter a lot, however, and DeBoer would almost certainly be foolish not to put both Burns and Karlsson out there on a top unit.
One of the many bright sides to this idea is that Burns sometimes operates like a borderliner forward (or “rover”) anyway, and Burns was even drafted as a forward. Consider his huge body and distracting beard, Burns could be a nightmare if he occasionally tried to screen goalies, although it might be foolish to put him in the line of fire too often.
Overall, there are some challenges to making this all work, at least in the most optimal way possible. Don’t expect opposing coaches to hand Peter DeBoer any Kleenex for his troubles, though.
The best defense in the NHL?: I don’t think you’d get much of an argument about the Sharks now boasting the most explosive defense from a scoring standpoint. Does the addition of Karlsson make San Jose’s defense the best in the NHL?
That’s a tough call, as the Nashville Predators boast a younger group, but San Jose’s terrifying from the top-end.
Perhaps the best-in-the-business debate boils down to how well you view Braun, Dillon, and other supporting cast members? Personally, I’d probably give San Jose the slight edge over the Predators and Jets of the world, as great as those groups are.
After all, considering the minutes that can be covered by Karlsson, Burns, and Vlasic, there will only be scarce opportunities for opponents to attack any perceived weaknesses in San Jose’s group.
With word surfacing that Joe Thornton seems healthy, the Sharks appeared to be the runaway favorites to win the Pacific (if not more). Then the Vegas Golden Knights made things interesting, again, by landing Max Pacioretty. Now the Sharks have upped the ante – finally, after missing out on the likes of John Tavares – by acquiring Karlsson.
Burns is 33, Vlasic is 31, and Karlsson’s even 28, so a Debbie Downer might worry about this group having a limited window for true domination. That’s plausible, if fun-killing, but the Sharks once again rise up as a daunting opponent for 2018-19.
It should be breathtaking to watch, although for opponents, that shortness for air would probably result from fear.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.