Winning Play: Should Karlsson, Burns be split up on power play for Labanc?

If Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns teaming up on the San Jose Sharks power play is destiny, Kevin Labanc keeps getting in the way.

Nine games after getting pulled from the first unit, in favor of the Karlsson-Burns duo, Labanc notched a power play assist in his first shift back on top, in a 6-3 loss to the Arizona Coyotes.

This is what the San Jose set-up looked like with Labanc:

Karlsson quarterbacked from the top. Logan Couture manned the left flank, Labanc took the right flank. Tomas Hertl occupied the slot, while Joe Pavelski crowded net front.

Notice that Burns is missing.

Alternating Burns or Karlsson with Labanc, Couture, Hertl and Pavelski to open the power play was a typical Sharks’ set-up until recently.

Here’s a mid-December example in Dallas:

It’s the same set-up, except Burns is in Karlsson’s place up top. A few seconds later, Karlsson jumped on, replacing Labanc.

Burns and his right-handed cannon were now installed on the left flank, while Couture switched to the other side.

This had been the flow for most of this year: Burns or Karlsson would open a power play in charge of the number-one unit, then Burns and Karlsson would team up at the expense of Labanc.

Before Labanc’s demotion on New Year’s Eve against Calgary, Karlsson had spent as much 5-on-4 time with Burns as he had without.

This changed radically when Labanc was yanked. The Sharks have leaned heavily on Karlsson-Burns at 5-on-4 since then:

Since Labanc’s demotion, Karlsson has played over 93 percent of his 5-on-4 shifts with Burns.

While scoring at 5-on-4 has been up for Karlsson-Burns — perhaps product of a small sample size — shot attempts have been way down. Just for context, per Natural Stat Trick, an 88.6 Corsi For per 60 (CF/60) at 5-on-4 would rank 25th in the NHL.

Compare any of these CF/60 numbers with Labanc’s team-leading 124.37 at 5-on-4, the majority of the time spent with Karlsson or Burns. As a team total, this 124.37 would lead the league, while Labanc’s on-ice 9.24 Goals For per 60 at 5-on-4 would hypothetically rank fourth.

This isn’t to suggest that Labanc is solely responsible for his power play unit’s shot volume or success. But it’s food for thought, as we wait for how Pete DeBoer will configure his power play this Saturday.

As for the Karlsson-Burns pairing, their decreased shot volume at 5-on-4 might be related to shaky carry-in results.

In fact, both Burns and Karlsson have taken turns quarterbacking the power play. In the last nine games, when sharing the ice, Karlsson, as quarterback, has a 65.4 Carry-In Percentage (17 of 26) at 5-on-4, while Burns recorded a 58.3 (14 of 24).

Compare this to Karlsson’s 78.9 Carry-In Percentage (15 of 19) at 5-on-4 in the six games before Labanc’s demotion.

We’re still talking small sample sizes, but this could be a case of too many chefs in the kitchen. Karlsson and Burns are puck-dominant blueliners, so having one intuitively trade off with the other could be a challenge for both.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the uber-talented defensemen simply smooth out their rough edges over time. But until then, perhaps assigning them more defined roles will help: Let Karlsson run most of the breakouts, while Burns can concentrate on shooting.

Meanwhile, Labanc, who leads all Sharks with a 7.39 Points per 60 at 5-on-4, appears to be doing power play work that’s too good to ignore, even if there isn’t necessarily space for him on the number-one unit.