Monday, June 6, 2016

Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a terrific shutdown defenseman

By Larry Wigge

Dreams. Even when you're a little kid in Montreal, you have them. Some of them are funny.

Defenseman Marc-Eduoard Vlasic remembers dreaming of someday he might play with the skills of Pavel Bure, his favorite player.

"I'd skate down the driveway and in my dreams I'd score the winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final," Vlasic confessed.

That like dreaming you'd hit a home run in Game 7 of the World or score a touchdown to win the Super Bowl.

Vlasic was not a fan of the Montreal Canadiens or the Detroit Red Wings. Still, he became a shutdown defenseman, not a high-flying scorer like Bure.

Shutdown. Vlasic has filtered through the muck and shut down Los Angeles winger Tyler Toffoli, Nashville all-star Filip Forsberg, St. Louis' Vladimir Tarasenko and on to Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby.

Toffoli, who led the Los Angeles Kings during the regular season with 31 goals, had one assist in the five-game opening round series against the Sharks. Forsberg had a team high 33 goals in the regular season and was an All-Star selection, but had just one goal and was a minus-9 in seven games for the Nashville Predators against San Jose. Tarasenko climbed to 40 goals this season, but he managed two goals in Game 7 against the Sharks and has no other points. Crosby had 36 goals and after he sparked the Penguins to a pair of victories with two assists, he was shut out in Game 3 by Vlasic.

We’ve talked a lot about the intangibles that make Vlasic special. That mental toughness and intestinal fortitude is a part that only Marc-Edouard can speak to. Regardless of all the superlatives we’ve given you an idea of what makes Vlasic tick, there was once -- in fact twice -- the thought that this talented, young defenseman would never make it.

"You learn to challenge yourself because of what some people say about you," Vlasic said, shaking his head a little. "I remember when I was 14 ... a midget ... I heard some people say I wasn’t offensive, I wasn't flashy, that I didn't do this and I didn't do that. They used that against me.

"I kind of laugh at it now, because the same things came up when I was getting ready to play junior hockey and no one wanted to draft me. One of my old coaches had to twist a lot of arms to get a team interested in picking me."

"What happens with goal-scorers when they get frustrated is they look to hit home runs," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. "I know that's a funny thing to say. The guy he's playing against Vlasic.
Goal scores feel that anxiety to try and score and help the team. They're looking to try to catch fastbreaks."

"What a fan is watching for is the spectacular," said Toronto coach Mike Babcock, who also has coached Vlasic on Team Canada. "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. "The elite thinkers, the guys who have high hockey IQ, they do that. And he's one of them."

Steve Yzerman, GM of Tampa Bay, said, "He's just extremely efficient. 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.

Vlasic accounted for eight goals and 31 assists in his 10th season with the Sharks. The 29-year-old has gotten one goal and 11 assists in 21 playoff games. The 11 assists ranks fifth in the NHL in the playoffs.

"It's tough to say how important he is for us," Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said of Vlasic. "He's one of the few guys who, I can re-watch a 60-minute game tape and he won't make a mistake. That's very rare. I don't think his value can be overstated."

"It's just a calming effect," said Sharks forward Chris Tierney. "He never seems to panic."

Ed Vlasic is now an engineer for a company called Pratt & Whitney, a Montreal firm that designs airplanes. He was an All-Star defenseman at McGill University from 1976 to 1981. His mom, Marie-Josee, is a physiotherapist. He met his future wife when he was coaching her intramural hockey team at McGill. She was also a defenseman.

The hard work ethic for Vlasic clearly came from Marc-Edouard's parents. It also got me to wondering what the youngster would be if he wasn't a star rookie defenseman in the NHL.

"I'd still be in school, probably taking a bunch of courses in science, working toward being an engineer," he recalled, when I interviewed him as a rookie. "My father taught me how important an education is."

Ron Wilson was his first coach in the NHL.

"The first thing you notice about him the way he uses his stick. That’s an art," Wilson said. "You also notice what a great skater he is. He’s one of those defensemen -- sort of like Sergei Zubov (Dallas Stars veteran defenseman and offensive quarterback) -- who always seems to be in control and goes only as fast as he has to. That’s why he can play 35 minutes in a game and hardly break a sweat.

"Somewhere along the line, he learned the important little things."

The real truth about Vlasic is that he is a real smart player.

Vlasic was drafted in the second round, 35th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Oddly, Sidney Crosby was picked first in that same draft.

"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."

Crosby continued, "I was 16 or 17 when we first met, he played in Quebec. He's very steady -- kind of really good offensively, but really smart defensively. I remember playing against him a lot, we were in the same division.

"He always did everything well."

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."

In the summer, Vlasic works on his offensive skill set in Quebec with his trainer, Raymond Veillette, and a handful of NHL players such as Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins, Antoine Vermette of the Arizona Coyotes and David Desharnais of the Montreal Canadiens.

In Quebec, Vlasic works on offensive skills such as stickhandling, and he spends a significant amount of time after practice honing the accuracy of his shot and the quickness of his release. Vlasic also practices his shot at home by firing tennis balls at a net with a cardboard goalie.

"It's the quickness. The quicker you get it off, the harder you shoot it," Vlasic said. "You see guys like (Tyler) Seguin and (Patrick) Kane, it's on their tape, off their tape, and it's right where they want it."

Said Vlasic, "I'm here to play my game, help the team win. If I get credit or I don't I'm not worried about that. I get it from the players, the coaches, the GMs throughout the league. That’s the No. 1 thing. In order to make teams (like Canada) the GMs have to like the way you play and that’s where I get my credit."

The first GM he got on his side was Doug Wilson.

"We knew how good he was because he was excellent at training camp," Wilson explained. "Then we watched him play 30 to 35 minutes a game in the Memorial Cup. Still he's so young. But it's funny. At the end of training camp, I remember a meeting we had with all of our people -- scouts and coaches. We asked them all to submit a list of players they thought should make our season-opening roster. It was no surprise that Vlasic's name was on all of the lists."

Wilson continued, "Those experiences have really fast-tracked his growth as a player. He's got an amazing amount of poise. He does the right thing just about every time he's on the ice.

"He's got an advanced, very mature hockey mind. He's mature beyond his years. His mom and dad are former defensemen. Maybe that's where all his brains come from."

A little defensemen humor.

But in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the pace is frenzied and the stakes are at their highest, defensemen are asked to make split-second decisions. In their own end of the rink, they face physical challenges against the most powerful and skilled players in the world. Up the ice, they are asked to move the puck and create offense.

That’s all.

It's certainly even more clear that Marc-Edouard Vlasic finished is smarter than his 20 years and finished Hockey 101 many years ago.

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