SAN JOSE — Kevin Labanc’s professional hockey career began the same way as his junior career ended, with just two days in between.
“I was a little bit tired, but it was definitely a little bit eye-opening,” Labanc said.
On April 27th, Labanc’s career with the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts ended, after the Niagara IceDogs swept the Colts in the Eastern Conference Finals. On April 29th, Labanc made his professional debut with the American Hockey League’s San Jose Barracuda in a season-ending loss to the Ontario Reign in game 4 of the AHL playoffs’ opening round. Labanc said he noticed the difference right away.
“It was a lot higher-tempo in the AHL,” Labanc said.
“[Players are] just stronger. They’re a lot smarter. Passes are tape-to-tape. In juniors, you could probably get away with deking a guy out. But in the AHL and NHL, guys are just on their game every day.”
Born in Staten Island, New York, Kevin Labanc spent two years with the United States National Team Development Program. He originally committed to play college hockey for the University of Notre Dame. He later decommitted and chose to play in the OHL, with help from his family.
“A big part of where I am right now is because of my mom and my dad and my sister,” Labanc said. “I wanted to discuss it before making that jump to the OHL, and they thought it was a good idea. I took their advice, and we made a group decision that I was going to play in the OHL.”
Labanc improved offensively each season in Barrie. After scoring 35 points in his first year in the OHL, he scored 107 points in his second, and led the league with 127 points in his third. He set the Barrie Colts’ single-season assists record last year, and signed an entry-level contract with the Sharks in March.
That offense has stood out so far in Labanc’s first training camp with the Sharks. In the Sharks’ preseason opener on Tuesday night, Labanc assisted on a goal, and scored the game-winning goal in overtime.
“He’s got good offensive instincts. He always finds a way to create a chance,” Sharks forward Matt Nieto, who assisted on Labanc’s game-winner, said.
General manager Doug Wilson mentioned Labanc on the first day of training camp as one of a handful of accomplished young players that the Sharks don’t often talk about. He added that the Sharks expect an under-the-radar player to make the roster out of training camp.
“In the past, whether it be a Melker Karlsson or a Joonas Donskoi, they weren’t high first round picks,” Wilson said last Friday. “They came in and made this team. That’s our history. We don’t have anybody in here on [professional try-outs], so we’ve always said we’ll give our own players the first opportunity.”
The 2014 sixth round pick definitely faces long odds to make the Sharks in his first full professional season. Head coach Pete DeBoer has said the team is an position where they do not have to rush their young players, but that Wilson will make room for players who earn a spot in camp.
Labanc’s taken that message to heart.
“I’m here, and I’m trying to make a good showing for myself and show the coaches I want to be here.” Labanc said. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”