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Developing and Deploying Youth on Defence

A look into how coach Todd McLellan deployed young defenceman in San Jose.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There's a good chance that the Oilers will have a lot of youth on defence next season. Both Oscar Klefbom (22) and Justin Schultz (25) will definitely be on the opening night roster. Darnell Nurse (20) and Griffin Reinhart (21) will be in the mix, while prospects like Jordan Oesterle (23), David Musil (22) and Brandon Davidson (24) hope to leave an impression as well. That's a lot of youth pushing for roster spots on defence, something that Todd McLellan didn't really have to deal with during his seven seasons as head coach of the San Jose Sharks.

Now this isn't to say that McLellan has no experience with developing defenceman. Three players, in fact, were young and inexperienced during McLellan's tenure in San Jose, and have since established themselves as regular defenceman: Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun and Jason Demers.  To get a sense of what McLellan might do with the Oilers defence this coming season, I thought it'd be interesting to dig into these three players to see how they were brought along and how well they performed under McLellan's tutelage.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic

Vlasic is an interesting case in that he was in his third season in the NHL when McLellan was hired by the Sharks in 2008, but was only 21 years old. He had made the jump straight from juniors to the NHL, with Ron Wilson using him as a shut-down  player, often playing against tougher competition. In 2007/08, Vlasic's most common linemate was a 25-year old Christian Ehrhoff, but when McLellan took over, Ehrhoff was bumped down the depth chart, with Rob Blake (!) becoming Vlasic's regular partner. Quick summary of Vlasic's performance at even-strength (5v5) over the years (Source: War on IceHockey Analysis).

Season Age Team Gm TOI/Gm G-A-Pts P/60 Corsi For% (CF Rel) Zone Starts (ZS Rel) Common Partner
2006/07 19 S.J 80 14.57 1-12-13 0.67 51.02 (-0.96) 52.33 (-4.33) -
2007/08 20 S.J 82 16.08 1-6-7 0.32 52.30 (-2.57) 50.26 (-7.11) Ehrhoff (25)
2008/09 21 S.J 82 16.95 2-8-10 0.43 53.65 (-0.95) 50.24 (-6.09) Blake (38)
2009/10 22 S.J 64 16.27 2-10-12 0.69 50.69 (-0.29) 43.19 (-9.64) Blake (39)
2010/11 23 S.J 80 16.75 4-10-14 0.63 53.93 (+0.35) 47.66 (-4.17) Demers (22)
2011/12 24 S.J 82 19.15 3-15-18 0.69 52.58 (+1.28) 47.31 (-5.8) Boyle (35)
2012/13 25 S.J 48 17 3-3-6 0.44 53.82 (+3.9) 47.17 (-4.62) Braun (25)
2013/14 26 S.J 81 16.59 4-14-18 0.8 58.17 (+7.08) 49.36 (-0.46) Braun (26)
2014/15 27 S.J 70 17.11 5-9-14 0.7 51.89 (+1.78) 43.92 (-7.07) Braun (27)

Very impressive career since he stepped foot in the NHL. He's had the chance to play with some top level talent, and now appears to have a long-term partnership with another young defenceman.

Justin Braun

The Sharks always did a fantastic job ensuring that their lineup had the right mix of youth and experience while McLellan was head coach. And if a player needed time to develop, the Sharks would not hesitate to send a player to Worcester of the AHL. Defenceman Justin Braun, selected in the 7th round, 201st overall in 2007, was another example of that having played a full four seasons in college and another 37 games in the AHL before making his NHL debut.

Season Age Team Gm TOI/Gm G-A-Pts P/60 Corsi For% (CF Rel) Zone Starts (ZS Rel) Common Partner
2010/11 23 S.J 28 13.9 0-8-8 1.23 56.2 (+3.30) 48.95 (+1.31) Wallin (35)
2011/12 24 S.J 66 13.77 1-6-7 0.46 54.18 (+4.33) 47.05 (-3.88) White (33)
2012/13 25 S.J 41 15.01 0-6-6 0.58 50.4 (-0.65) 50.25 (+1.46) Vlasic (25)
2013/14 26 S.J 82 16.69 3-13-16 0.7 54.19 (+1.00) 45.09 (-6.9) Vlasic (26)
2014/15 27 S.J 70 17.21 1-18-19 0.95 50.44 (-1.57) 44.6 (-6.11) Vlasic (27)

Braun wasn't quite NHL ready like Vlasic, so McLellan obviously took a much more cautious approach having him paired with more experienced players early on. Braun played second to third pairing minutes going against lesser competition until McLellan thought he was ready to play on the top line with top players. He has shown some offensive flashes in recent years, complementing Vlasic's defensive style nicely.

Jason Demers

Demers is another defenceman who was a late pick (7th round, 186th overall in 2008) and was developed well by the Sharks. He played five full seasons in the QMJHL and then another 100 or so games in Worcester before making the jump to the NHL. Again, McLellan deployed him carefully letting him take on lesser competition and paired with an experienced defenceman in his first season. Quick glance of how Demers did at even-strength (5v5).

Season Age Team Gm TOI/Gm G-A-Pts P/60 Corsi For% (CF Rel) Zone Starts (ZS Rel) Common Partner
2009/10 21 S.J 51 11.98 1-8-9 0.88 49.44 (-0.43) 49.03 (2.54) Huskins (30)
2010/11 22 S.J 75 14.81 2-15-17 0.92 56.29 (+3.78) 49.58 (-1.12) Vlasic (23)
2011/12 23 S.J 57 14.14 2-6-8 0.6 50.55 (-3.04) 55.12 (3.41) Burns (26)
2012/13 24 S.J 22 15.42 1-2-3 0.53 48.58 (-4.41) 50.93 (-0.8) Stuart (32)
2013/14 25 S.J 75 15.39 4-17-21 1.09 54.93 (+1.74) 51.24 (2.19) Vlasic (26)
2014/15 26 S.J/DAL 81 15.24 3-16-19 0.92 54.75 (+3.52) 49.94 (0.34) Hannan (35)

Demers bounced around a bit on the depth chart but was more of a sheltered defenceman by the time he was dealt to Dallas. He was obviously given chances from the coaching staff to prove himself, but was ultimately moved down the depth chart to make way for Braun.

Findings

We know that San Jose has always had well built rosters that had plenty of talent on the back end. They've had that right mix of experience and youth and built their pairings accordingly. Their draft record speaks for itself having selected Vlasic, Ehrhoff, Braun and Demers over the years and didn't hesitate to access the free agency pool or the trade market. The Sharks allowed their young players to develop at the appropriate levels and when they were ready for the NHL, they were often paired with veteran players and slightly sheltered early on.

As Oiler fans, we can hope the same type of development and deployment can happen for the defence core. The talent is there, but too often in the past they've been forced into situations that they're not ready for. It'll be imperative that the Oilers take their time developing prospects like Nurse and Reinhart and should not hesitate to bring in experienced players to allow the prospects to develop in the appropriate leagues. Bringing in someone like Cody Franson or even Marek Zidlicky, who should both be affordable contracts at this point, would also give the club flexibility to establish three legitimate NHL pairings, similar to what McLellan was able to do in San Jose.