Playoff Power Rankings, Week 3: Money in Labanc

The Sharks move on to round two, and we go with them.

Welcome to Fear the Fin’s weekly(ish) player power rankings. Who had the biggest impact, the best goals or the prettiest smile in the week that was and who you should totally grab off of waivers in your fantasy league to stick it to Derek in accounts receivable. All rankings subject to the whims of fate and whatever we’re feeling in the moment, postseason power rankings are prone to being particularly mercurial.

Everything is going according to plan.

Some kind of plan, at least. The San Jose Sharks have gone from a do or die Game 7 against the very good and scary Vegas Golden Knights to a best-of-five series against the pretty-good-but-not-really-as-good-and-scary Colorado Avalanche. As with all things, however, the journey is what matters.

What preceded what may be among the greatest comeback victories in NHL playoff history is what has dominated the headlines ever since. What most national press refers to as a “controversial” call, the details of which I won’t belabor since we’re all intimately familiar with them, stole the narrative thunder from a team that mounted a historic Game 7 comeback straight out of a movie none of us would like because it would be too unrealistic.

The reaction to the call from the press was swift. Opinion pieces on the game were almost universal, and almost entirely focused on the penalty call to Cody Eakin, with some taking it pretty far. The reaction to the call from the league was less swift, but no less unilateral, with an unnamed league official allegedly calling Knights owner Bill Foley to apologize about the penalty, and an announcement that the two referees involved in the game would not be working any later rounds of the postseason.

The prevailing counterfactual here seems to be this: in the alternate universe in which the Knights are correctly penalized for that play (correctly being a two minute minor to Eakin for cross-checking and a two minute minor to Paul Stastny for interference), do the Sharks come back to win the game? That’s hard to say, it’s certainly less likely, but if we’re in the business of running counterfactuals for bad calls, what if Brent Burns’ tie-breaking goal in Game 2 is counted, do the Sharks go on to win that game? If so, don’t the Sharks win the series in six?

These kinds of hypotheticals are meaningless and only serve to justify an argument that assigns the gravity of a result to the most conveniently assailable of its many contributing events. In 99 out of 100 games, the Sharks receipt of a five minute major power play instead of a two minute 5-on-3 is a minor discrepancy that would be forgotten by the morning, but in this one, it will be referred to both as an excuse to argue for further replay review and, depending on the outcome of the next few rounds, as an excuse to de-legitimize any playoff success San Jose sees.

The question going forward is not whether the call on the ice was correct: it pretty clearly was not. The question is when this league will learn to adjust flawed processes before it produces irreparable results. The NHL is notoriously reactionary; failing to address obviously flawed rules (puck over glass, goaltender interference) until something happens that either causes a general manager or owner to get very upset (Matt Duchene scoring on David Poile’s Nashville Predators after receiving a pass blatantly offside) or makes the league look particularly foolish (Sean Avery waving his stick in front of Martin Brodeur, Brett Hull’s foot in Dominik Hasek’s crease, the aforementioned Brodeur being just too dang good at stick handling).

The league absolutely should address what happened in that Game 7. There was a mistake on the ice, and it was one of many events that led to the end of an expansion team’s season. That said, more review is definitely not the answer, and one would think that the debacle that offside review has become would have taught us this by now. Not long ago, a very smart and cool and handsome writer with lots of cool friends that you don’t know because they go to another school in Canada suggested an expanded coach’s challenge that would have prevented this issue, and it goes like this:

Coaches can challenge any penalty. From icing to offside to goaltender interference to, yes, a five-minute major for cross-checking, the coach’s challenge can be applied at any stoppage in play. However, just like it’s currently implemented, a coach can only use his challenge once. Unlike it’s current implementation, however, in my ... er, I mean, this cool writer’s, who is so smart ... new system, the coaches challenge always costs the team’s timeout. Most games see at least one time out, so this shouldn’t cause too much more delay than we already see. Last, from the moment the referee recognizes the challenge, the on-ice officials have two minutes to come to a conclusion, after which, if a decision has not been reached, the call on the ice stands, and the challenge is considered used.

Now, I’m sure there’s something I’m not considering here, but what do you think? Did I save hockey forever or what?

You know what, don’t answer that.

1. Kevin Labanc

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week323532644.86

For much of the first round, and large stretches of the second so far, the Sharks’ third line of Joe Thornton, Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen have taken advantage of mismatches with both the Knights’ and Avalanche’s depth forwards. To wit, the trio has skated to a score- and venue-adjusted 5-on-5 shot attempt rate of 50.69 percent in 75 minutes in the postseason, which does not sound that impressive, but is a significant improvement over the team’s mark of 47.20 otherwise. While few would dispute Thornton’s status as the driver of the trio, Labanc has been making the most of his opportunities there and on the power play, which is why he belongs atop this list.

The Sharks scored four goals in just over four minutes on that fateful power play on Tuesday night and Labanc earned a point on all of them. With a primary assist on Logan Couture’s opening tally, and secondary assists on Tomas Hertl’s and Couture’s second, Labanc decided to stop giving to others and score the go ahead goal himself. He continued his highlight reel right on into Game 1:

There was one particular slick little move that allowed Labanc to get this puck first past Mikko Rantanen and then past Sam Girard on the way to the Avalanche net, and it was the same gesture both times. Labanc used the heel of his stick to signal that he was going to his right around Rantanen at the blue line. That small tic froze the Colorado forward, allowing Labanc to scoot the puck right through him and, later, the same small movement fooled Girard into an early, and poorly aimed, poke check. The footwork on display from Labanc was also incredible, allowing him to quickly dodge around Rantanen and recover the puck quickly on the other side.

2. Brent Burns

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week3358801447.07

Brent Burns powered his way onto our rankings (ha!) the only we he knows how: by piling on a boatload of points. Burns’ eight points this week leads Labanc in second place with five, and doubles Charlie Coyle in third place with four. Seemingly free from the yoke of defensive responsibility thrust upon him in round one, Burns is back to his freewheeling ways against the Avalanche and I, for one, welcome our bearded friend back into the embrace of chaos. Burns is the first Sharks defenseman to score four points in a playoff game and, with 53 career postseason points, Burns has taken the number one in franchise history among defensemen title from Dan Boyle.

Burns’ proximate goal with ten seconds left to play in Game 2 was not enough to prevent the Avalanche from heading home with a split, but it was a pretty sweet play regardless. Burns took advantage of the chaos after the faceoff and on the half wall to sneak in behind the Colorado defense and goaltender Philipp Grubauer. By the time Tomas Hertl had the puck in the slot, Burns had sidled into shooting position low in the opposite faceoff dot, and his one knee one timer was child’s play. It didn’t make much of a difference in this game, but this team’s willingness and ability to fight for every inch after we’ve all given up on our couches is remarkable and was a big factor in their comeback in Game 7 and no, I will not stop talking about it, thanks very much.

3. Logan Couture

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week321320751.74

Last week: 2

Logan Couture is one of just three Sharks skaters to record a positive adjusted shot attempt share at 5-on-5 over nine postseason contests this year (Timo Meier and Joakim Ryan are the others). That speaks to how much he contributes on a team that boasted the second best mark in that category during the regular season. For those 82, Couture resided near the bottom of the team’s possession players, largely because of the quality of competition he was facing. Now, his on-ice shot share has stayed largely unchanged while the team around him has struggled. As goes Logan Couture, so go the San Jose Sharks.

That’s one.

When Logan Couture finally wears the C as the captain of the San Jose Sharks, we’ll be able to look back at this moment as the one that solidified his position as a real leader of this team. Similarly to how Burns sneaked in behind Colorado’s preoccupied skaters, Couture took an opportunity while the Knights were distracted to put himself into prime shooting position during a moment where his teammates and fans were at their lowest. This goal may not have stoked the fires of hope by itself, but Couture’s proclamation, “That’s one!” will give me goosebumps for years.

4. Tomas Hertl

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week3134201055.36

Last week: 1, 3, 5

With six goals in the first round, including a short-handed double overtime winner, Tomas Hertl tied with Couture for the team lead. If Couture is growing into the heart of the Sharks, Hertl is its smile. After Barclay Goodrow scored the Sharks’ overtime winner on Tuesday, Hertl spend minutes skating around, whipping his stick in circles and yelling at the crowd before hurling it into the stands. Just find someone who loves you like Tomas Hertl loves ice hockey.

This goal has kind of an extra symbolic heft to it, doesn’t it? Not only was this the moment when we all thought for the first time that something special could be happening, but this was when “do it for Pavs” felt most real. Hertl stood in the slot, far from the net, and tipped a point shot past Marc-Andre Fleury. With Joe Pavelski out of the lineup and presumed dead, someone had to take his role, and Hertl was that someone. The most compelling thing about sports is always personal drama, and this is as good as that gets.

5. Joe Thornton

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week311210746.37

Thornton scored both of his points in Game 1 at home against Colorado, but he gets extra credit for his brief, but apparently effective, pep talk that spurred the Sharks’ dismantling of Vegas on Tuesday. What’s more, Thornton continues to scrawl his name in the record books: his assist on Burns’ goal in Game 1 was his 100th career playoff assist. Having 100 assists in the NHL is nothing to sneeze at, but hitting that number only in playoff contests is something special.

It’s truly impressive that Thornton can still skate like that at his age and with two surgically repaired knees. Nevertheless, Sorensen’s stick work and Thornton’s reputation as a passer likely did equal amounts of deception work on Grubauer so that, once Sorensen released the pass, the keeper was already committed and wasn’t able to move over nearly quickly enough to block Thornton’s shot.

Hono(u)rable mentions

Martin Jones: Jones has been solid in three games this week, largely keeping his team in games and allowing fewer soft goals than we’re used to. We’ve often said that Jones just needs to be average to give a team with this much talent a chance to win and Jones has been better than that.

Erik Karlsson: With nine assists in the first round, Karlsson is in rarefied air. Only two defensemen in NHL history have recorded more than nine assists in one round: Paul Coffey in 1985 and Al MacInnis in 1984. Not bad players to be compared to.

Barclay Goodrow: The hero of the day. Goodrow’s overtime winner was no grinding shovel play — it was a great skill move in tight to beat one of the game’s best.