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It seems just like yesterday, in the fall of 2006, that Marc-Edouard Vlasic cracked the San Jose Sharks' lineup as a 19-year-old rookie, making the jump straight from Canadian Major Junior right into the NHL and looking like he belonged.
Seven NHL seasons later -- seven! -- Vlasic is a 26-year-old veteran on a team where his presence is being felt more than ever both on and off the ice.
Anchoring the top pairing with Justin Braun, Vlasic is asserting himself, matching up with the opposition's top forwards and making calm and confident decisions with the puck.
"He was like that as a young player, the poise and the confidence he had with the puck," veteran Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan said Monday after practice.
Hannan was Vlasic's first NHL partner on defense back in 2006-07.
"He's a very good skater," said Hannan, who left the following season before returning at the trade deadline this past April. "Positionally sound. You talk about his evolution, it's what experience brings you. Now, when he plays against top guys, he doesn't get caught out of position. His confidence and poise with the puck is what really impress me."
Vlasic was second only to veteran star blueliner Dan Boyle on the team in ice time this season, averaging just under 21 minutes per game. He's averaging just over 21 minutes a game in the playoffs so far, a reliable workhorse whose consistency is his greatest trait. Flashy? No. And perhaps that's why league-wide he hasn't been given the kind of attention he should probably be getting.
"He's a vastly underrated player," Anaheim Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau told ESPN.com Monday. "He can skate, he's tough, he hits, but he does it all under the radar. He's the kind of guy coaches love."
Vlasic is quick to credit the likes of Hannan and Rob Blake, two former defense partners, for helping his growth as a player.
"Hannan in my first year really helped," Vlasic said. "I was a 19-year-old making the jump from the Q [Quebec Major Junior Hockey League] right to the NHL -- that was a huge step. I looked up to him in the way he played. Even now in the playoffs all these years later, he's so calm, with a good stick, always in the right position."
When Blake joined the Sharks in 2008 and was partnered with Vlasic, well, that was surreal.
|Marc-Edouard Vlasic, left, learned a lot from playing with boyhood idol Rob Blake.|
"I grew up watching him," Vlasic said. "My parents and my girlfriend at the time couldn't believe I was playing with Rob Blake. He was just so calm, great shot, always in the right position, not the fastest skater but always got up the ice quickly, got his shot through and on net, and off the ice he was a big leader. Just playing with him for two years was a great experience for me."
On a team with plenty of blue-line experience led by the still-dynamic Boyle, the gritty Hannan and the beast that is Brad Stuart, Vlasic has nevertheless stepped up in the leadership department as well.
"Of course after seven years, year after year your role gets bigger, your leadership grows as well," Vlasic said. "I'm just following the guys that have been here in the past. ...
"We have three guys right now on the back end that are 26, the other three guys are 33 and over. I kind of feel like for the new generation guys I have to step up and be a leader for that group. But we have tremendous leadership back there."
There's still more upside in Vlasic's game. He's constantly working on his shot in the offseason. He doesn't put up big offensive numbers and it's clear that's an area where he'd like to grow his game.
"I'd like to get on the power play more but in order to do that, you have to be able to play there," Vlasic said. "I know I can. I can make those plays. I work on that every year."
What better judge of a defenseman than Larry Robinson, one of the game's all-time greats at the position and in his first year as associate coach with the Sharks.
Ask Robinson a question and you'll get an honest answer.
"When I got here, they told me [Vlasic] was one of their top [defensemen] here, him and Boyler were the two best," Robinson told ESPN.com Monday. "And he's certainly not disappointed. Did he have a great year? Maybe I'm a little hard on him, I think there's more to give from him. But he's certainly been one of our stalwarts back there."
Robinson said Vlasic is a "very, very smart" player. And yet, the Habs legend sees a game that can still grow.
"I'd like to see him be a little more aggressive in a lot of the things he does, because he's such a good skater," Robinson said. "I mean, he never runs on empty. He could be caught out there for two minutes and he's still got lots of gas in the tank. He's played really well for us. He's willing to block shots, he makes good outlet passes and he knows when to jump in on the play. He's been a great player for us."
Bring it on, Vlasic says. He enjoys the challenge of being matched up against the top offensive players the other team has to offer.
"You want to play against the best players," Vlasic said. "You want to shut down the best players. I try to be consistent but I also want to get better every season. I want to improve in all areas. My maturity has grown, my aggressiveness and physicality, just getting older and getting bigger. I just want to be a good two-way hockey player."