Marc-Edouard Vlasic might not be a household name, but the D-man is San Jose's secret weapon

ByPierre LeBrun ESPN logo
Saturday, June 4, 2016

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The Stanley Cup finals are moving west for Game 3, which means that the San Jose Sharks can now deploy one of their most important weapons with more control. Having the last line change as the home team for the next two games will afford San Jose the chance to get Marc-Edouard Vlasic out on the ice againstPittsburgh Penguinsscoring starSidney Crosby as much as possible.

The Team Canada teammates are currently foes in the most important matchup of the NHL's championship series, which resumes Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. Crosby has been the best player in the Cup finals, but Vlasic is certainly holding his own too, making the kind of little plays that go unnoticed by many fans but not by the people standing behind the bench.

"What a fan is watching for is the spectacular," said Team Canada coach Mike Babcock this week when asked about Vlasic. "What the coaches are looking for is: Do you do it right every single time? And, when your team is on the ice, are you always in the offensive zone? The way [Vlasic] plays the rush, the way he brings the puck out, the way he skates, the way his stick is on the puck, the way he sees it first ... . He's an elite thinker and he makes his partner that much better.

"You're always looking for players who make the players around them better, and he's one of those guys,'' added Babcock, a two-time Olympic champion as a coach. "The elite thinkers, the guys who have high hockey IQ, they do that. And he's one of them.''

Fans on the East Coast who didn't see many late-night Sharks games might not yet truly appreciate Vlasic's defensive talents. But when Team Canada Olympic GM Steve Yzerman put him on the roster for the Sochi Games in 2014, many hockey observers took notice. And when the 29-year-old Vlasic was among the first 16 players selected in March for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey by current Team Canada GM Doug Armstrong, it was considered a no-brainer choice.

"He's just extremely efficient," Yzerman said of Vlasic, earlier this week during a phone conversation. "A very intelligent player. The Nicklas Lidstrom-type, where he doesn't blow you away with big, open-ice bodychecks or end-to-end rushes, but he defends really well, he moves the puck really well, positionally he's extremely solid. He just goes about his business every single game. He can play against the best players and he can play with the best players.''

The Lidstrom comparison, though lofty, is based, as Yzerman said, on how Vlasic makes the quiet little plays to go so unnoticed by many. Nothing flashy, just steady. You're not talking SportsCenter material on most nights.

"He's a world-class player," said his defensive partner, Justin Braun. "I think, being on the West Coast, a lot of people don't get to see how great he is. The [guys in] Montreal, Toronto, they get a lot more coverage. San Jose, a lot of people don't even stay up for those games. They only see the highlights. You're not going to see how great he is in the highlights, because they won't show a good stick or good body position. But he's always where you need to be.''

It's the simple play under duress that sets Vlasic apart. Take a first-period play during Game 2 Wednesday night. In the Sharks corner, Vlasic hadPhil Kessel pressuring him from one side and Carl Hagelin coming at him the other way. So the San Jose blue-liner calmly dumped the puck out between them, bounced it off the glass and into a safe area. It might look boring, but it's the kind of play where so many other defensemen might have coughed it up.

"Just smart. Really smart," Crosby said of Vlasic, whom he played against as a junior in the Quebec League. "He's not the most physical guy, but he's really good with his stick. He can block shots when he needs to. But I think, just [with] his hockey IQ, he doesn't need to work hard necessarily. He works smart."

As teammates in Sochi, they earned a gold medal together, on a platform that for the first time allowed Vlasic to show his game to a bigger audience. "I wanted to make that team," said Vlasic this week. "I worked hard. Got the recognition from the GMs and the players. And since then, I think I've grown my game offensively and defensively. Playing with the best and against the best can only help your career.''

One of Vlasic's talents is shot blocking. It's an art form in a way. He's second in the NHL playoffs, with 55 of them, and led the Sharks in shots blocked per game during the regular season. Shea Weber once cracked one of Vlasic's shin pads with that heavy shot of his. But there was Vlasic in the second round, putting himself in front of more Weber shots. He's fearless.

"It takes guts," Vlasic said of shot blocking. "It's easy being in the lane without being in the lane. It takes more guts to block shots, yeah. At this time of year it's courage. In order to win, you have to block shots. ...

"I do take a lot of pride in it," added the Montreal native. "It's part of shutting people down. A big block for me is just as big as a scoring chance going to the other way.''

The Sharks will need more of those big blocks -- and the other little plays -- as they try to turn the momentum and erase that 0-2 series deficit. If they do, you can count on Vlasic being at the heart of it.