What does Kevin Labanc have in common with Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews?
They’re all in the NHL’s top-10 in points per 60 at 5-on-4.
It’s a key reason why Labanc has maintained his position on the San Jose Sharks’ top power play unit, ahead of more celebrated stars like Erik Karlsson, Joe Thornton and Evander Kane.
The right-hander usually mans the right half-wall on the man advantage:
This is a little unusual, as oftentimes, you want a left shot on the right side, or the off-wing. Being a leftie on the right wing means your stick blade is closer to the middle of the ice, which is conducive for shooting and one-timers.
Being a rightie on the right wing has its advantages, though. According to Labanc, “Playing on the right side, I can protect and manage it a lot better.”
His stick blade away from the middle of the ice keeps the puck away from swiping defenders.
“You always have the puck prepped, ready to make a pass,” said Labanc.
“He’s a gifted power play guy. He’s elite in that area,” Peter DeBoer acknowledged. “All the stats, all the analytics point to that.”
Besides ranking 10th in the league with 7.12 individual points per 60 at 5-on-4 (of 240 skaters, 100+ minutes at 5-on-4), Labanc appears to be helping drive team success on the man-advantage. His 72.08 scoring chances for per 60 at 5-on-4 is seventh in the NHL and leads San Jose. Meanwhile, his 10.11 goals for per 60 at 5-on-4 is second only to Tomas Hertl on the Sharks.
So what makes Labanc elite on the power play?
No less than Joe Thornton pointed out, “He’s very patient. He just slows down the game when he has the puck. His vision is incredible on the PP.”
When Thornton, he of 1,055 career assists, compliments your work on the man-advantage, it’s, well, a jumbo-sized compliment.
For his part, Labanc says he’s learned much from the maestro.
“There are moments when the speed of the game slows down. When you find those moments, that’s when you take advantage of it.
“Jumbo takes that to the next level. You have to be quick, but not in a hurry. That’s one of things I learned from watching him.”
Labanc (62) crosses the blueline, but unusually, he stops there to review his options. Carl Soderberg (34) charges him, trying to take away Labanc’s immediate option on the right, Logan Couture (39). Calmly, seeing open space to his left, Labanc slides over there, leaving Soderberg sputtering behind.
Taking one penalty killer out of the play, Labanc has opened up a wealth of time and space for himself and his teammates.
Beyond patience and vision, disguising your intentions are key on the man advantage:
The most noteworthy sleight of hand here, of course, was Labanc’s pass to Pavelski, but the winger’s deception began well before that.
Couture goes low to high to Labanc at the point. On reception of the pass, Labanc throws a subtle shoulder fake. Soderberg bites hard, attacking the other point, an off-screen Brent Burns, because that’s where he thinks the puck is going.
“He has very good deception,” DeBoer noted.
As Labanc walks down, he’s looking straight at Semyon Varlamov. Ian Cole (28), thinking shot, goes down.
“You don’t know if he’s shooting or passing,” said DeBoer.
Vision, patience and deception. But there’s more: Labanc places the pass just under Sheldon Dries’s (15) stick and in Pavelski’s (8) wheelhouse. The execution here is all important, if the pass is behind or in front of Pavelski, Varlamov has a ghost of a chance to recover.
However, being a terrific passer on the power play isn’t enough. You must also own a dangerous shot, be a valid double-threat. Even a pass-first playmaker like Thornton is capable of beating a goalie one on one. In this regard, Labanc is no different.
“He’s got a great shot as well,” asserted Brenden Dillon, who gets to defend Labanc at practice. “One of those dual-threat guys.”
There are many skaters, of course, who can pull off such highlight-reel plays from time to time. But what keeps somebody on a top power play unit, especially on a squad as loaded as the Sharks’, is consistent brilliance.
“It’s a credit to Banker and what he’s been able to accomplish,” Dillon said. “There are a lot of players vying for only two minutes of ice.”
(Stats as of 3/4/19, courtesy of Evolving-Hockey, Hockey Reference, HockeyViz, MoneyPuck, Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.)