San Jose Sharks' 5 Most Underrated Players for 2013-14 NHL Season
In between all the marquee names of the 2013-14 San Jose Sharks are a group of players who hop the boards when the Thorntons, Marleaus and Boyles of the team go for a line change.
They are the players coaches love to coach. Championship teams will tell you they could never have done it without them. The unsung heroes. The grinders and relentless workhorses.
They block shots and win battles on the boards. They finish their hits and swing momentum. They win faceoffs and shut down the opposition's top lines. And when the team's top players appear snakebitten, they come through with a goal when you need it most.
They may not be getting the early recognition, but these five players have played huge roles in the Sharks' early success.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Marc-Edouard Vlasic became the Sharks' best all-around defenseman.
He doesn’t possess the flash that teammate Dan Boyle is known for. He doesn’t intimidate opposing players with bone-crushing hits like Shea Weber or Niklas Kronwall. He doesn’t rack up forward-esque point totals a la Erik Karlsson or P.K. Subban.
Maybe that’s how the Montreal native has quietly become one of the league’s most underrated defensemen.
The smooth-skating Vlasic begins his seventh season with the Sharks as one of two players averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game. His plus-eight—the stat many consider to be the most indicative of a defender’s value—ties him for first among all NHL defensemen.
A baby-faced veteran at just 26 years old, Vlasic enters the 2013-14 season second only to Mike Rathje in games played by a Sharks defenseman. With his current contract not set to expire until 2017-18, Vlasic stands poised to assume the top spot in the near future.
This past August, Vlasic was invited to Hockey Canada's summer orientation camp for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Should things go well, Vlasic will no longer be one of the league's best-kept secrets.
No, you’re not looking at Marc-Edouard Vlasic in a mirror. That’s his defensive partner, Justin Braun.
Along with Jason Demers and Matt Irwin, the 26-year-old Minnesota native represents one-third of the Sharks' youth movement on defense. There hasn’t always been room for everyone, and Braun was frequently the odd man out.
Prior to the 2013-14 season, with Irwin still in Worcester, the veteran-heavy Sharks were often forced to choose between Braun and Demers on any given night.
But with Douglas Murray sent to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline, one coveted spot on the Sharks' blue line opened up.
Like Vlasic, Braun is a fluid skater and his defensive positioning has gotten significantly better. His board play could still use some work, but what really sets Braun apart from the other Sharks defensemen is his boomer of a shot.
Braun sees lots of time on the penalty kill with Vlasic, which speaks to his mobility.
Head coach Todd McLellan still seems to prefer Demers to Braun on the power play, but a goal or two courtesy of that heavy slapper could swing the pendulum back in Braun’s favor.
When you picture a team’s leading hitter, you don't picture someone like 6'0", 195-pound Tommy Wingels. Don’t let his size fool you, though. That’s exactly what the former Miami University Redhawk captain has become for the Sharks.
A productive forward in college, Wingels has successfully adjusted his game, solidifying his place as the team’s energy guy. Throwing his body around, winning battles on the boards and constant puck pursuit exemplify Wingels’ style of play.
His tireless work ethic and improved positioning make him a reliable option for Coach McLellan in a myriad of matchup situations.
Wingels starts his second season alongside Joe Pavelski on the Sharks' revitalized third line. With three points (1G, 2A) in his first five games, Wingels is headed for a career year in several offensive categories.
In an organization where young forwards are regularly used as trade bait, Andrew Desjardins has managed to become the longest-tenured Sharks forward not named Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski or Couture.
The fourth-line center starts his fourth season with the club, offering the Sharks some rare consistency in the bottom half of their lineup.
Desjardins' value these days lies primarily in his physical presence, but he has also shown a proficiency in the faceoff circle. McLellan has shown trust in Desjardins late in games to win draws in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill.
On a team with no shortage of fan favorites, Desjardins will likely never be more than a blip on Sharks fans’ long-term radar. However, every championship team needs players like Desjardins at the core of its character.
For those expecting to see Antti Niemi here, I considered it. But before you get all riled up about this one, hear me out.
The Sharks arrived at the 2013-14 season with guns blazing. High-flying offense, shutdown defense and some pretty solid goaltending on the rare occasion when it was needed.
Despite his seven points (2G, 5A) in five games, nobody is talking about Logan Couture.
That doesn’t mean anyone’s forgotten about the Sharks’ youngest returning player. It’s more reflective of the pandemonium surrounding the Sharks early on.
Sure, when opposing teams' coaches sit down to strategize about how to handle the Sharks, Couture is towards the top of the priority list. The increased attention on the ice hasn’t done much to thwart the Canadian Olympic hopeful’s production.
I don’t need to sell you on Couture. The goal scoring, penalty-killing, shot-blocking, faceoff-winning center does it all for the Sharks. The lack of early attention hasn’t changed that.
Thanks to the mainstream media's East Coast bias, though, Couture still remains one of league’s most underrated stars.
He'll get his due attention eventually. Rookie Tomas Hertl's production will return to the realm of reality and Joe Thornton isn't due for another outburst for another 34 years.
When the chaos surrounding the Sharks finally dies down, Couture will be there, still doing it all for San Jose.