With Talent Emerging In Pipeline, Sharks Are Confident They Have the Blue Line Depth to Absorb Vlasic’s Loss

Author: Paul Gackle, The Gackle Report
Date: Jan 3, 2017

SAN JOSE — With Marc-Edouard Vlasic temporarily on the shelf, the Sharks blue line depth will get put under the microscope this week, a test the team expects to pass with top grades.

The Sharks (23-13-1) placed Vlasic on the injured reserve Monday, recalling defenseman Mirco Mueller from the AHL Barracuda, who could make his season debut against the Los Angeles Kings at the SAP Center on Tuesday as David Schlemko also missed practice with an upper-body injury suffered on Saturday.

Head coach Peter DeBoer is “optimistic” that Vlasic, who got hit in the face by a slapshot against the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday, will be healthy enough to return to the lineup for Saturday’s bout with Detroit Red Wings when he’s eligible to come off the injured reserve.

But in the meantime, DeBoer is confident that the organization has the depth on the back end to absorb Vlasic’s short-term loss with several Barracuda defensemen, like Mueller, bubbling up through the pipeline.

“We’ll see tomorrow when Schlemko wakes up,” DeBoer said, when asked about Mueller’s status for Tuesday’s game. “These type of things test the depth of the whole organization and so far we’ve passed those tests, for the most part. As a coaching staff, we feel real comfortable with the guys we bring in here.”

As recently as last winter, losing Vlasic, or any top-four defenseman, was a nightmare situation for the Sharks blue line.

The Sharks posted a 1-6-1 record when playing without a top-four defenseman over the first five months of the 2015-16 season, including an 0-2-1 record in three games without Vlasic in December 2015.

But a lot has changed over the last calendar year. Dylan DeMelo has emerged as a reliable option on the team’s third pairing, giving the squad a valuable insurance policy against a blue line injury. In addition, Mueller is blossoming into a legitimate top minutes defenseman with the Barracuda while Tim Heed and Joakim Ryan are also knocking on the door, making cases for recalls to the parent club.

Heed, who signed with the Sharks out of the Swedish Hockey League last spring, currently ranks fifth amongst AHL defensemen in scoring with 27 points in 26 games. Meanwhile, Ryan is proving to be a sound, responsible blue liner, much like DeMelo, in his second season with the Barracuda, leading the team in plus / minus (plus-nine).

“That American League team (the Barracuda) is one of the elite teams down there, that shows you the depth we’ve got,” DeBoer said.

“Good organizations, I don’t think it’s any secret, their American League team’s very good, and a lot of times they’re winning championships. Columbus’ American League team (the Cleveland Monsters) won the Calder Cup last year, Tampa’s (reached the final), not that long ago, and then they rolled all those guys into the lineup. From what I’ve heard, we have that type of team down there.”

Mueller earned his recall to the Sharks by playing top-pairing minutes on the Barracuda’s blue line, including ice time on the power play and the penalty kill, which is currently ranked first in the AHL (89.4 percent).

After suiting up for 39 NHL games with the Sharks as a 19-year-old rookie in 2014-15, Mueller is really coming into his own in his third year of professional hockey after struggling mightily in the AHL last season.

The 21-year-old defenseman, who’s collected eight points in 25 AHL games, has been particularly strong in his own end where he’s quashing opponents’ forechecks by making strong puck retrieval plays and leading the breakout with quick passes out of the zone.

Last year, Mueller would often hold onto the puck in his own end, attempting to quarterback the Barracuda’s offense from the backend rather than moving the puck north as quickly as possible and then joining the rush as an attacker.

“He sure has been impressive,” Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer said.

“He’s moving pucks now. He looks for the single coming out of our end. He doesn’t look for the long bomb anymore. He’ll hit the 10-foot pass instead of throwing it across the ice, and he’ll kill stuff in our own end. When the puck’s loose, and it’s a 50-50 puck, he’s winning it. Last year, I couldn’t really say that all the time.”

Sommer also called Mueller a, “penalty killing machine.”

“Any kind of loose pucks, anything around the yellow (the boards), he’s going,” Sommer said. “He gets to it and he gets it down. He’s a big part of the success of the penalty kill.”

Mueller acknowledged that he is playing with a different mindset this season. Last year, he often tried to do too much with the puck, attempting to stamp his ticket back to the NHL. Now, he’s making the simple plays instead of hurting the team with giveaways.

“More than anything it was confidence,” Mueller said.

“Playing in the NHL your first year, you expect things for yourself the year after that. It just went the wrong way a little bit. Obviously, it took me a little while to get past that. It probably shouldn’t have, I’ve gone a long way. But I think it made me a better player for the long run.”

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