This is the second season we’ve seen Kevin Labanc matched with the Joes on the top line. Just like last year, where he tallied seven goals and 12 points in his first 25 games, Labanc is starting out strong, earning two points in the first period against the Flyers last night.
“That’s the least of my worries, our first line,” Pete DeBoer said after the game. They were easily the best line on the ice last night. Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton saw 16 and 18 minutes, respectively. Kevin Labanc, on the other hand, took three minor penalties and cut his ice time down to 13 minutes.
He made the most of those 13 minutes. SAP Center went wild every time he touched the puck in the second and third periods, hoping for a home opener hat trick.
Unfortunately, that honor went to the Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds, who was able to capitalize on two of the power plays created by Labanc. Jordan Weal also earned a goal from a Labanc penalty.
Three of the Flyers’ five goals were power play goals and they were all caused by Labanc. Another was an empty net goal. Special teams were the determining factor in the game, and it didn’t turn out in the Sharks’ favor.
Why, then, should Labanc stay on the top line?
Two of the calls on Labanc last night were arguably soft. The league is cracking down on slashing, in particular, and all players have to adjust. That’s going to be more difficult for a player who has only seen 55 NHL games.
He’s 21 and this will likely be his first full season in the NHL. He’s going to make mistakes. The problem comes in not allowing him to learn from those mistakes.
After his first 25 games, Labanc hit a wall. He was far from the only player to struggle at that point in the season, but it still saw him get pulled off the top line. In his final 31 games, he only scored one goal.
This season, DeBoer has made it clear that Labanc’s position isn’t a lock. Despite the fact that Labanc put in the work this summer to prove that he is NHL ready, he finds himself in a position of uncertainty.
For young players, that’s not a great position to be in. He’s already having to adjust to stricter rules and the competitive level of the NHL. Mix in a need to prove himself every single night, and those three penalties are going to become a pattern instead of a rookie mistake. It’s a detriment to his development, and as we saw last year, it doesn’t make him any more productive.
Labanc’s creative offense, speed, and hockey IQ make him a guy that anyone would want on their top line. He shouldn’t have to question that on a day to day basis.