Among San Jose Sharks prospects, Kevin Labanc is one of the most exciting, and may have the highest ceiling. A sixth round draft pick in 2014, Labanc rewarded the gamble by placing first in the OHL in both points (127) and assists (88) in 2015-16, good enough for second in both of those categories in the CHL overall. Labanc made his NHL debut earlier this season in a November 8 3-0 against the Capitals in Washington, and looked right at home on the second line with Logan Couture and Joonas Donskoi. Labanc skated to a +1 in 13:23 of ice time that game, and the rookie had arrived.
Labanc’s season overall was a promising one. The rookie had 20 points in his debut season, good enough for 13th on the Sharks. His 8 goals placed 10th on the team, his 12 assists tied him for 11th, and his 10 primary assists tied for 6th. He was also 6th on the team in primary points per 60 minutes. Not bad for a first year playing 55 games at 13 minutes per.
Labanc’s puck handling and distribution on the power play are and have been a strength of his going back to his junior years, and the Sharks coaching staff put that to good use. Labanc placed 10th among forwards in power play time on ice per game, and look for him to increase that position over the next few years.
Labanc’s possession numbers show room for improvement, but I’m hesitant to put too much stock in them during a rookie season, with no career context to speak of. He spent a fair amount of time with was Joes Thornton and Pavelski, with whom he unsurprisingly did the most damage, and posted an even strength CF% of 53.96. Those numbers, unfortunately, don’t hold up with lesser linemates, as his most common linemate, Logan Couture, couldn’t carry him as effectively, seeing a sub-50% share of shot attempts together (partially ameliorated by time with Joel Ward, possession darling).
Maybe this was a factor in the decision to hold number 62 out of playoff action, or maybe the coaching staff just overvalues experience, but it was probably a mistake to play underachieving veterans over him against Edmonton. Hopefully, we’ll see what Labanc can do in an NHL postseason sooner rather than later.
Labanc plays with a poise and confidence that is rarely seen in rookies, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him develop into a consistent top-6 player in the NHL. The Sharks organization is right to be excited about him, as he, Timo Meier, and Marcus Sorensen look to be the next wave of Sharks forwards, and we seem to be in pretty good hands there so far.
2016-17 Sharks 5v5 Usage Chart (via Corsica Hockey)
Player Rolling 25-game score, zone, and venue-adjusted average CF% (via Corsica Hockey)
Player Hero Chart (via Own The Puck)
This is the best thing. I remember distinctly when this happened, in a December 23 overtime win against the Edmonton Oilers, and after the game I rushed home to find the highlight of it so I could save it on my PC and watch it any time I feel sad. Labanc corrals a wonky pass from Brent Burns at the red line and takes off towards the offensive zone, leaving Connor McDavid (remember him?) in the dust at the blue line. He cuts inside, threading the puck between the stick and skates of Milan Lucic toward the far half wall, where he lets McDavid borrow the puck for a second before stealing it back and throwing it deep to Logan Couture in the corner. As soon as the puck is off Labanc’s stick he charges to the net, smokes McDavid again, and puts an obscenely close shot straight up over Cam Talbot’s shoulder. Kevin Labanc knows who you are, Connor, and he does not care.
What comes next?
As with any rookie, Labanc’s future is up in the air. Labanc is just finishing the first year of his entry level contract, and, aside from the far off possibility he’s used as a trade chip, is likely to stay with the organization for its entirety. If he continues to develop in the direction he has this year, it’s likely that he’ll be a key part of the future of this team.
Besides, anyone whose name lends itself this easily to pun nicknames is money.