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Will the Sharks use Vlasic differently when he returns?

SAN JOSE — Six weeks can seem like an eternity in NHL time.

When the Sharks last met up with the Ottawa Senators on Dec. 1, the team lost its fifth game in six tries, raising questions about its status as a Stanley Cup contender and whether the organization made the right move by trading for Erik Karlsson on the eve of training camp.

Now, with the Senators in town for Saturday’s rematch at SAP Center, the Sharks are reborn. The squad is 14-3-2 since the debacle in Canada’s capitol. The group is raising eyebrows across the NHL with wins over the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Vegas Golden Knights over the last week, and Karlsson is rolling, having collected 26 points in his last 17 games.

It should be an exciting stretch run in Silicon Valley.

Of course, the Sharks recent success is raising a lot of questions, which means it’s time to open up the mailbag. Without further ado, I’ll turn the keys over to you. Buckle up:

From @BleedingTeel: Does the Sharks success without Justin Braun & Marc-Edouard Vlasic in the lineup make either potentially expendable heading into the trade deadline? Given the upcoming negotiations with Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Timo Meier, moving either or both contracts presents a huge benefit to Team Teal.

The Sharks know they’re going to need eight defensemen down the stretch and into the playoffs, so it’s unlikely they’re going to trade either blue liner before the deadline. They need insurance against injury. The last thing they want is to see a key defenseman go down late in the year, thinning out their depth when they had the bodies to absorb a loss.

Though Doug Wilson is leaving the door open to the possibility of a deadline deal, those are the type of players that are more likely to get moved at the NHL draft if the Sharks wanted to explore that route.

Instead of making a trade, the Sharks are more likely to change the way they deploy Vlasic and Braun in the second half. Braun is expected to suit up Saturday against the Senators. Vlasic is still considered “day-to-day.”

The timing of Vlasic’s injury worked out perfectly for DeBoer. When Vlasic returns to the lineup, the Sharks can ease him back into the mix, giving him a reduced workload in a bottom pairing role. As a result, they can continue to deploy Karlsson and Brenden Dillon against their opponents’ top lines, taking responsibility away from Vlasic, who’s struggled this season with a team-worst minus-13 rating, without insulting him.

At this point, it’s implausible to expect Vlasic and Braun to resume their shutdown responsibilities when the Sharks have played their best-defensive hockey of the season without them. This is first time all season that the Sharks have surrendered two or fewer goals in four straight games and that includes wins over the Lightning and the Knights.

Moreover, if the Sharks want to sign Karlsson to a contract extension, they might want to let him hold onto the keys down the stretch, which means less ice for Vlasic and Braun. Karlsson averaged more than 26 minutes a night in each of his last five seasons with the Senators, including a whopping 28:08 during Ottawa’s run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2017.

Karlsson wants to log big minutes. He can handle the work load. The Sharks are a better team whenever he’s on the ice.

Vlasic and Braun’s injuries gave DeBoer the opportunity to lean on Karlsson more heavily. There’s no reason to change that when everyone’s healthy.

From @the_rocket08: of the Calgary Flames and Vegas Golden Knights, which should Sharks fans root for them NOT to meet in the postseason?

This questions offers a good follow up to the last point. The Sharks need to secure first place in the Pacific Division this season, another reason why they should be riding Karlsson down the stretch.

Normally, seeding is irrelevant in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Remember, the Sharks reached the final as the third seed in the Pacific Division in 2016, opening up the playoffs on the road in Los Angeles. It didn’t matter by the time they reached the final.

But things are different this season. Right now, I’m counting five legitimate contenders in the Western Conference: the Sharks, Knights, Flames, Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators. Beyond these teams, the level of competition falls off a cliff with 12 points separating the Knights from the fourth place Anaheim Ducks in the Pacific Division.

That said, choosing between the Flames and Knights is a pick-your-poison scenario. The real key here is avoiding a situation where you need to go through both teams to reach the Western Conference Final. The playoffs are a test of attrition and it’s going to be hard to beat the Jets or Predators if getting through the Pacific Division requires two six or seven-game series.

But since you asked the question, I’ll pick the Flames for two reasons: Vegas is battle tested in the playoffs and Marc-André Fleury will be guarding their net. After seeing what Fleury did last spring, I’d prefer to take my chances against an unproven commodity, such as David Rittich, instead of testing my chances against a three-time Stanley Cup champ. With goaltending being the Sharks top area of concern right now, a full series against Fleury feels like a daunting challenge.

From @RFWill149: who do you think is next in line for a first time call up from the San Jose Barracuda?

I don’t see a scenario where the Sharks recall another Barracuda player to make his NHL debut this season unless the team gets to play a meaningless game during the last week of the season.

The first half is about experimenting and seeing what you have. As I mentioned above, the Sharks need to rack up as many points as possible over the last 36 games of the season. If the injury bug sweeps through town, I’d expect the Sharks to recall Antti Suomela or Dylan Gambrell, guys who’ve seen action at the NHL level.

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