With 17 games remaining, the San Jose Sharks currently hold down the top spot in the Western Conference.
After compiling a 42-14-9 record up until this point in the season, San Jose holds a slim two point lead over the second place Chicago Blackhawks and with 93 points the Sharks are nearly a lock to finish no worse than second in the conference.
Considering the Sharks have a nine point lead and a game in hand over the third place Vancouver Canucks, only a major collapse would prevent a top-2 seed for San Jose.
But with another impressive regular season coming to a close for the Sharks, fans are beginning to wonder whether this year's team can match up with fellow Stanley Cup contenders.
While the Sharks clearly match up with any team in the league on paper, the on ice play of their defensive corps has not lived up to expectations.
Outside of Douglas Murray and Dan Boyle, the entire Sharks defensive corps is limited in their effectiveness.
The trio of veteran defensemen Kent Huskins, Niclas Wallin and Jay Leach all bring average defensive abilities to the table, but neither demonstrate impressive physical play or offensive punch.
However, all three of them could suffice as third pair quality defenseman. As such, their performances haven't been the problem.
The real problem is that the play of both Rob Blake and Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been extremely mediocre this season.
In fact, the primary reason that the Sharks won't be able to beat any of the fellow Cup contenders is because they have been playing the entire season with only two top-four quality defenseman.
In particular, it is the captain of this year's Sharks squad that has been more of a detriment to this team than an asset. In his first year as the Sharks captain, Blake has underachieved at both ends of the ice.
One could even make the case that rookie Jason Demers (who has had his own defensive woes) has brought better all around play than the 19-year veteran.
Now without any fancy saber metrics available to rate the defensive abilities of a NHL defenseman, readers will just have to take my word for it that Blake has been downright awful defensively this season.
To what degree have both Blake and Demers struggled defensively?
Well, Blake has been caught for 16 obstruction penalties in 54 games while Demers has taken only four obstruction penalties in 44 games.
Therefore, one could assume that Blake has been playing worse overall because he has been more penalized.
On the contrary, that assumption can be proven wrong when you take into consideration that Blake plays a larger role and sees more ice time. When you factor in ice time, the discrepancy in amount of penalties each of them have taken is significantly reduced.
The only way to get a full grasp of how Demers and Blake have been playing defensively is to watch the tape.
Unfortunately, the average follower like you and me doesn't have access to game tape or enough space on our tivo to save all the games.
But drawing from memory, both defensemen have played equally bad in their own zone. Obviously the more experienced Blake has done a great job of hiding his deficiencies and Demers' mistakes have been much more noticeable.
However, those of us who have played and followed the game for years have realized that Blake's incredibly slow style and lack of skating ability in his own zone has made him quite the liability.
There really is no way of getting around it, even though Blake disguises his decreased ability level quite well, he has been just as lousy defensively as Demers has this season.
What is the kicker you ask?
How can an argument be won in favor of playing Demers over Blake?
Simple, Demers has brought much more to the table on the offensive end.
On the season, Demers has four goals and 20 points in 44 games, while Blake has five goals and 21 points 54 games.
If both were to play 82 game seasons at their respective paces, Blake would finish with 32 points and Demers with 37 points.
To the naked eye, five points may not seem like a big difference but when you consider Demers averages five minutes and 37 seconds less ice time per game, his offensive production is elevated even higher.
In other words, Demers is averaging a point for every 35 minutes of ice time. Blake on the other hand only averages a point for every 55 minutes of ice time. At Demers' current rate, if he were to have played the amount of minutes Blake has played this season, he would have 33 points on the season.
That is a 57 percent increase in offensive production Demers would bring to the table if he was given as much playing time as San Jose's 39-year-old captain.
Yet the Sharks are going to head into the playoffs with Blake playing the part of a top-four defenseman who sees over 21 minutes of ice time per game?
It really is quite a joke that at this stage of his career Blake is being given this much ice time.
Now as it stands, if the entire roster is healthy, the Sharks won't even end up having Demers in the postseason lineup.
But they certainly will have Blake in the playoff lineup despite the fact Demers has brought more on ice value this season.
What does this mean for the Sharks?
It means that their captain is less deserving of playoff action than their seventh defenseman.
Now when was the last time a team won the Stanley Cup with their captain being such a liability?
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