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Top 25 Sharks Under 25: Can No. 4 Kevin Labanc cash in again?

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There’s a top six spot open and Labanc has a chance to take it.

May 4, 2018; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29) stops a first period shot by San Jose Sharks right wing Kevin Labanc (62) in game five of the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs at T-Mobile Arena. Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Labanc earned himself a spot on the Sharks roster last season, when he stepped up to help fill the scoring hole Patrick Marleau left after signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now it’s up to Labanc to determine where he will fit in to the Sharks’ long term plans.

Going into the 2018-19 season, Labanc is expected to battle with Joonas Donskoi and Timo Meier for a spot on the second line with Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl.

Labanc grew by leaps and bounds in the 2017-18 season. He scored two goals on opening night and it looked like he had found a spot with Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton on the top line. But October went downhill from there and on November 5, 2017 Labanc was sent down to the Barracuda.

Labanc was smart. He spent a week or so with the Barracuda, fixed his game and by November 12, 2017 he was back with the team. He stayed with the Sharks for the rest of the season and the postseason.

In the 2017-18 season, Labanc scored 40 points (11 goals, 29 assists) in 77 games, raising his point per game average to .52. He also started to get power play time. 17 of his points last season came on the man-advantage.

That’s a big difference from 2016-17, when Labanc registered 20 points (8 goals, 12 assists) in 55 games, enough for .36 points per game. Only two of those points came on the power play.

Labanc also got a taste of postseason play this past spring. The young forward played in all 10 of San Jose’s playoff games. He registered 5 points (1 goal, 4 assists), sticking close to his season average of a half-point per game.

What we like

Labanc is smart. He sees the ice and makes plays that sometimes remind me of Joe Thornton (Before you get mad and start dropping comments below, I’m not saying he is Joe Thornton. There is no one like Joe Thornton. I am just saying sometimes his understanding of what’s happening on the ice reminds me of Jumbo.).

Labanc sees the whole picture and as a result, he makes his teammates better. He knows where players are and where they are going to be. As they say, he has a high hockey IQ and that’s something the Sharks value.

Labanc also knows how to step up to a challenge. At the start of last season, General Manager Doug Wilson challenged young players like Labanc to step in and make up for the goals lost when Marleau signed with Toronto. What resulted was a career season for Labanc.

The 22-year-old will face another challenge this season. After trading Mikkel Boedker and flipping Mike Hoffman for a few draft picks and a defensive prospect, Wilson told NHL.com, “We have witnessed some tremendous growth in our younger forwards over the past season and we feel that we have another group of players that are ready to challenge for additional ice time, including Kevin Labanc...”

Add to that the fact that Labanc is entering a contract year — he’ll be an RFA at the end of the season — and there’s added motivation. I think we’ll see some extra jump to Labanc’s game this season.

Areas of improvement

This season Labanc is going to have to work on his two-way game, especially if he wants to slot in alongside Couture, who tends to face off against an opponent’s top line. In the past, Labanc has made some costly turnovers and decisions with the puck while in the defensive zone. He will have to clean those up if he wants to take on a top-six role.

Labanc also makes the mistake of overthinking plays. As I said, he’s a smart kid who thinks about the game on a high level. When he trusts himself, he does great things. However, when he gets into his head, he has a hard time. I think with some guidance from the coaching staff, he’ll make better plays in the defensive zone and start to score more consistently.

Highlight

I had a few options when choosing highlights for Labanc, but I went with this one, his first goal of the 2017-18 season. It was a two goal night for Labanc and really solidified his spot on the Sharks roster.