Teenager, eight-year vet two of NHL's top surprises
Posted: Friday December 29, 2006 11:46AM; Updated: Friday December 29, 2006 1:16PM
Marc-Edouard Vlasic (left) and Daniel Cleary (right) are enjoying sudden success at notably different points in their NHL careers.
Dave Sandford/Getty Images
Darren Eliot will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
First-half surprises often end up being just that -- short-term phenomena who fade away as the schedule gets tougher. That said, there are a couple of story lines worth watching: one of promise finally being fulfilled and another of an unheralded youngster stepping into the NHL and delivering like a seasoned veteran.
First, if anyone thought Daniel Cleary would be the Red Wings' leading scorer at this juncture of the season, pat yourself on the back and go straight to the front of the fantasy pool class. With 17 goals as of Friday, Cleary has three more than he did during his most productive NHL season (35 points in 2000-01 as an Oiler). His first career hat trick on Thursday night lifted the Wings past the Blue Jackets in a wild 7-4 affair.
And maybe that's where the unexpected intersects with the expected, as in a player such as Cleary -- showing the offensive game at age 28 that made him a first-round pick in 1997 -- helping the Wings continue their winning ways when many predicted their demise in the salary-cap era. Yet GM Ken Holland and his staff have done another masterful job of keeping the Wings in the upper echelon of the Western Conference by signing guys such as Cleary -- a free-agent castoff by the Coyotes coming out of the lockout -- and getting surprising returns.
Then there is the case of Marc-Edouard Vlasic of the Sharks. Don't chastise yourself if you aren't familiar with him, but he is turning heads out west as a dependable defensive defenseman at the NHL level ... as a teen-ager. The premise and prospect of such an occurrence is a rarity, if not an oxymoron. Youngsters who burst onto the NHL scene usually do so with offensive flair -- such as Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins and Anze Kopitar of the Kings, the leading rookie scorers in the league thus far.
Yet, Vlasic plays more minutes per game than either of them. He plays more than fellow rookie teammate Matt Carle, who came with much more fanfare as the 2006 Hobey Baker winner and having played down the stretch and in the playoffs for the Sharks last spring. In fact, Vlasic logs more ice time in each game than any other rookie in the league. He won't turn 20 until March 30, yet he anchors the Sharks' blueline on the penalty kill, garnering nearly four of his 21-plus minutes per night in man-down situations.
Vlasic, though, is coming off a season of highs and lows. He won the 2006 Memorial Cup with Patrick Roy's junior team, the Quebec Remparts -- this after Canada's world juniors team passed on him last December. As for his junior days in general, the story goes that Roy kept calling early in the season inquiring as to when Vlasic would be returning to his junior team. In October, the answer wasn't entirely clear. As December turns to January, Roy's calls are now just to check on his former player's adjustment to life in the NHL.
He knows Vlasic has moved on for good, the surprise to him having long worn off.