Winning Play: Growing pains for Labanc

Logan Couture, in his own way, has been through what Kevin Labanc is going through.

Both players made remarkably similar mistakes in last night’s 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Labanc was beat by Yanni Gourde to a loose puck, giving Gourde a goal. Labanc also took an unnecessary cross-checking penalty in front of Tampa Bay’s net in the second period.

“I thought he was okay,” Coach Pete DeBoer acknowledged. “Missed an assignment defensively, got scored on. Then took a penalty.”

Meanwhile, Couture was beat by Mathieu Joseph to a loose puck, giving Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead. Couture followed Labanc’s penalty by getting called for tripping, giving Tampa Bay a 5-on-3 man advantage.

Only one of them, however, was demoted to the fourth line, as Labanc was in the final frame.

That speaks to the trust that Couture has earned from Pete DeBoer to bounce back from mistakes — trust that the 23-year-old Labanc has yet to earn.

Couture, of course, endured his growing pains too.

Looking back at Couture’s rookie year in 2009-10, he was sent down to the AHL six times during the season, five times before Thanksgiving. Labanc was sent down seven times in his rookie year in 2016-17.

Meanwhile, Couture played as little as 6:13 in a game that year. Labanc skated a career-low 6:58 just two weeks ago against Los Angeles.

That might be the end of comparisons between Labanc and Couture: Couture, after all, was a ninth-overall pick with high expectations, while Labanc was selected in the sixth round. Couture also established himself as a star in his sophomore season, while Labanc is still trying to find his way in his third year.

Regardless, that doesn’t change Labanc’s challenge: Despite the gains — for example, he’s enjoying a career-high half an assist per game pace this season, remarkable for a sometimes fourth-liner — he has to earn DeBoer’s trust soon. Last night was a missed opportunity for Labanc, who started the contest with Couture and Timo Meier, but ended it with Melker Karlsson and Barclay Goodrow.

“This was a playoff-like game,” DeBoer observed. “The margin of error is that small against a good team. Hopefully, it’s a lesson learned.”

If Labanc doesn’t learn, the impending RFA may find himself in a different organization by this summer — or by this Trade Deadline.