In a season where many San Jose Sharks forwards hit career highs in points, Kevin Labanc’s own career season may not always take center stage, but as Joe Thornton gets older (allegedly) Labanc’s emergence as a pass-first forward and a half-wall sniper on the power play may increase in importance. That is, of course, assuming he stays a Shark after hitting July 1 as a restricted free agent (RFA) in an off-season with an infinity percent increase in offer sheets around the league compared to the past six years.
Labanc’s 17 goals and 56 points in 82 games were a career high, surpassing his 40 points in 77 games in 2017-18. The obvious question is why? Between spending the preponderance of his ice time on the wing of Joe “Jonathan Cheechoo won a Rocket Richard in 2006 with a shooting percentage of 17.7 and 24 power play goals” Thornton, ice time and power play time distributions, physical development, or, most likely, some combination of those, is difficult to tease out, but we like a challenge here, so let’s dig a little deeper anyway.
In 2018-19, Labanc spent 40.36 percent of his even strength ice time on what was generally considered the Sharks’ third line with Thornton and Marcus Sorensen, and an additional 6.22 percent with Thornton and various other forwards. That 46.58 percent was a massive increase in exposure to the NHL’s 101st best player of all time, as the center was Labanc’s line mate for just 17.63 percent of the latter’s even strength time in 2017-18, and 21.42 percent in his rookie year, 2016-17. In the postseason, the pairing was even more solid, where Labanc spent 77.49 percent (!) of his even strength time with Thornton.
Thornton’s impact on Labanc’s production, though, may be more stark than ice time numbers imply. While having Thornton on the ice almost definitely makes it easier to find space and pucks, Jumbo intervention on Labanc’s scoring came at a pretty significant rate. Of 36 points Labanc registered over the regular season at even-strength (the two shared far less ice time on the power play), Thornton pointed on 12, exactly a third of the kid’s even-strength point production. Sorensen, the third member of the trio, pointed on 11, so while it’s possible the three generate some alchemical magic, it seems more likely that Thornton’s gravitational waves were a boon in Labanc’s career year.
As mentioned, though, Labanc didn’t spend a whole lot of power play time with Thornton, which makes sense. The two play a similar role with the extra man, on the half wall facilitating low cross-crease passes and occasionally snapping a shot to keep goaltenders honest. As a result, Labanc’s 20 points on the power play, up from 17 the previous season, had to come from some other change. In fact, Labanc’s ice time on the power play went up by a smaller proportion than his power play production, from 169:16 in 2017-18 to 186:13 this season, a 10 percent increase in opportunity compared to an 18 percent increase in production. That’s a pretty small sample, though, so suffice it to say his vision and passing ability appeared to improve pretty significantly.
In the postseason, Labanc took his power play success into the stratosphere. During the Sharks’ legendary comeback in Game 7 of the first round series against the Vegas Golden Knights, Labanc took center stage (well, maybe not center center, but right there next to Logan Couture), earning a point on all four of San Jose’s power play goals in the third period (one goal, one primary assist and two secondary assists). The future of the Sharks’ power play seems to flow through Labanc, and his strategy of sneaking in toward the net with the puck and either passing laterally across the slot or snapping a wrist shot high is still pretty effective against NHL goaltenders.
RAPM Chart (via Evolving Hockey)
As much as Labanc’s counting stats and box scored improved in 2018-19, his numbers under the hood fared less well, at least at 5-on-5. As mentioned above, Labanc’s impact on the Sharks’ power play has been significant and, considering how low the team’s on-ice goals for bar is here relative to expected goals and shot attempts, it seems likely there was some bad luck involved and his impact may have improved beyond what his box scores suggest. Again, power play time is strange, and more subject to both small sample size bias and systems influence than the flow of 5-on-5 play, so observations should take that into consideration.
Back to evens, Labanc’s drop in defensive expected goals may be partially a factor of deployment. In 2018-19, Labanc started 64.86 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone. With just those data, it is concerning that his expected goals and shot attempts against measures are so poor, but adding in the fact that, in 2017-18, Labanc saw a 58.67 percent offensive zone start share, a decline in defensive acumen is puzzling. A possible explanation is the Sharks’ system. This year, the Sharks appeared to give up more breakaways and odd-man rushes than in previous seasons. Could Labanc’s offensive zone starts make him more likely to be on the ice during such a breakdown, leading to more goals against due to the lackluster play of goaltenders Martin Jones and Aaron Dell? I don’t have an answer for that question, but it’s food for thought.
Career Summary (via HockeyViz)
When we exclude secondary assists, and focus on primary points per hour, we see a pretty consistent player over the course of three seasons in the NHL. Labanc’s primary points per 60 minutes of 1.26 over the past three seasons puts him in comparable territory to players like J.T. Miller and Ryan Hartman, both of whom have moved around a few times in that span, and just above players like Clayton Keller and Samson Reinhart, players with high pedigrees who just haven’t clicked for one reason or another. If Labanc can take yet another step next season, and shore up some of those defensive numbers, he could turn out to be yet another late draft day steal for Doug Wilson. That is, if he’s still playing for the Sharks come October.
While Labanc was one of the catalysts for San Jose’s advancing to the second round of the playoffs, it was his goal in Game 1 of that second round that really caught the eye. Assisted, true to form, by a beautiful long bomb outlet pass courtesy of Brent Burns, Labanc stopped all of us dead in our tracks when he tucked the puck between the legs of Colorado Avalanche superstar and fellow unsigned RFA Mikko Rantanen just inside the offensive blue line. Maybe Rantanen over-committed to the hit, but Labanc deftly slid around him, curled in toward the slot, and launched a snap shot past a conveniently screening Samuel Girard to hit the far top corner.
It may not be the Labanc-est goal, but it’s probably the prettiest.
What comes next?
This may be the most interesting question. On June 25, the Sharks tendered a qualifying offer to Labanc along with six other RFAs. Since then, Wilson has solidified a contract for Timo Meier, but Labanc still sits unsigned. The very smart boys at Evolving Hockey have projected Labanc for a three-year contract at a cap hit of just over 3.4 million dollars. After Meier’s extension and Tuesday’s flurry of signings, the Sharks have just under 6.4 million dollars in cap space, making any signings tricky.
With that 6.4 million, general manager Doug Wilson has to re-sign Labanc and some or all of Dylan Gambrell, Maxim Letunov, Kyle Wood, Antti Suomela and Nick DeSimone, all qualified RFAs, the latter two of whom are eligible for arbitration, all while keeping space available next season for players like Radim Simek and Brenden Dillon. This is all setting aside the need for more players to fill the roster for 2019-20; the Sharks have nine rostered forwards as of this writing, and as a math whiz, I can tell you that’s not quite what the coaching staff will need to roll four lines in the Fall.
Wherever Labanc ends up next season, he seems to be a perfectly serviceable middle-six forward with plenty of upside as he gets older. The Sharks would benefit from locking him up for a while, as trading away young players often hurts more than it helps.