Winning Play: Labanc states his case

Kevin Labanc may be regaining Peter DeBoer’s trust.

Coming out of the break, DeBoer indicated, “In my conversations with Kevin, he knows it’s about showing your teammates, your coaches that you can be trusted to make the right plays on the road in a tough environment in a 2-1 game in the playoffs. He’s gotta take some steps toward that.”

Last night, Labanc took those steps, and DeBoer rewarded him with more ice time than the 23-year-old has seen in over two months. Labanc played 16:52, his most since, not coincidentally, Dec. 1 in Ottawa. Labanc skated 17:39 in a 6-2 loss widely considered to be the rock-bottom point of the San Jose Sharks’ season.

Through the Ottawa debacle, Labanc was averaging 15:08 a game. Since then, he’s clocked 12:01 a contest. In that time, he’s been demoted to the fourth line and taken off the top power play unit.

In that time, he’s also watched the Sharks tie the Tampa Bay Lightning for the most victories (21) in the league since Dec. 2.

That’s not to suggest that lowering Labanc’s usage has directly related to more wins. For a player trending downward, it’s no easy task to play your way up through a winning line-up.

But that’s what Labanc did last night — at least for one game — in a 5-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers. And it wasn’t just because of the first hat trick of his career.

“He’s gotta trust me, knowing I can make those perfect detail plays every game, be smart with the puck,” Labanc said, in response to DeBoer’s criticism. “That detail has to be ready for the playoffs.”

That detail was ready in all three zones last night.

From his first shift, Labanc was all over the puck.

Tim Heed (72) moved the puck up the wall to Labanc (62). Labanc’s strength is still a question; he needed Heed’s help to poke it away from Jujhar Khaira (16). But what strength Labanc has can buy Heed an extra split-second to help out.

It’s now a 50-50 between Labanc and Brandon Manning (26) at the point. Labanc’s hustle and quickness won out.

Labanc gained the zone, Manning draped all over, but Labanc dropped it back to Joe Thornton (19). Edmonton’s shoddy defense collapsed on Thornton; the Hall of Fame playmaker sent it back down to Labanc, setting up a down-low 2-on-1. The pass hopped, but brilliantly, Labanc was still able to backhand a pass right onto Marcus Sorensen’s (20) tape.

That’s Labanc playing an inside game, battling Manning for position in front. Even if he’s not overpowering the opposition down low, Labanc can occupy a defender and take away the goalie’s eyes.

These days, forechecking isn’t just about size anymore. Quick feet and an insistent stick can be just as effective.

Labanc harassed Kevin Gravel (5) into an errant pass here.

Everything goes right for the Sharks here, but it starts with Labanc’s well-placed pass where Sorensen can skate into it and break out with ease. It’s a high-skill, not as easy-as-it-looks play: Consider the pressure on top of Labanc and the touch required from the pass.

Labanc noted that this was type of play that the coaching staff wanted him to improve.

“In the defensive zone, you’re in the hashmarks, defenseman are coming down to pinch on you,” said Labanc. “You gotta get that puck out or make a good play with it, give it to a centerman or somebody, not turn it over, so you’re not trapped in your own end.”

While it’s a forward, Brad Malone (24), forechecking Labanc, the same principle applies: Make a play or get it out. There’s no in-between.

This was actually a mistake by Labanc.

It might be reading too much into it, but Labanc’s apparent frustration with icing the puck could be seen as heartening. Up 3-1 in a game that San Jose was controlling, you want that care and attention to detail.

Approaching the Trade Deadline, Labanc will be an intriguing figure. For the all-in Sharks, having already traded away their 2019 and 2020 first-round draft picks, Labanc is one of their most attractive trade assets. He’s young, highly-skilled and should be relatively cheap in the coming years.

On the other hand, complete efforts like last night showcase his potential. So what’s Doug Wilson to do?