For the San Jose Sharks fans, learning the lineup for this 2016-17 season has not been a challenge. In any given game, 18 skaters skate. Through 12 games, the Sharks managed to use only 19 players to fill those 18 spots. In Tuesday night’s game against the Washington Capitals, the Sharks used their 20th skater of the season, where he made his NHL debut. He is among the most interesting Sharks. Kevin Labanc is his name.
Labanc’s Recent History
Labanc was selected by San Jose in the 2013 draft, the 171st player picked. He is unfamiliar to most San Jose Sharks fans and even, for the most part, to San Jose Barracuda fans.
The Barracuda did not play a home game until October 28th, the first time Labanc played a regular season AHL game in San Jose. In six AHL games, Labanc scored at a torrid pace, potting four goals and adding six assists. His plus-six rating is the Barracuda’s best.
He was also scoring at a torrid pace in his last full season. He spent it with the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League. Labanc led the league in points, ahead of several very notable prospects. He set team records for points (127), assists (88) and plus-minus (plus-60).
The Sharks traveled to Washington to face the Capitals. The Sharks were on a three-game losing streak. Two losses came to a pair of weaker teams (Arizona and Calgary), the third was a beatdown courtesy of Pittsburgh. For many Sharks fans, the desire for change was in the air.
Labanc, age 20, played effectively in his first NHL game, which the Sharks won 3-0. Labanc, wearing jersey number 62, was a factor. Sharks coach Peter DeBoer slotted on Labanc on the second line with Joonas Donskoi (minus-four in the first dozen games) and Logan Couture (minus-five). It was the Sharks most effective line.
They dominated the puck. Labanc was effective, including making several subtle defensive plays. Each line member finished the night positive. Labanc was also integral to several scoring chances, including the Sharks second goal.
Calling up Labanc paid a short-term dividend, but it is not the reason for bringing him up to the Sharks. Early in the season, teams often ‘experiment’ with younger players. It is to find out how their game works against NHL players who are bigger, faster and stronger than those they have played against in lesser leagues. Almost inevitably, the player who is called up has deficiencies in their game which are exposed at the NHL level. It is a learning experience, and it gives the player a roadmap on how best to develop his game going forward.
It is in the interest of the Sharks and Kevin Labanc to find out how his game fares at the NHL level so they can form Labanc’s own developmental roadmap for NHL success. Labanc’s call-up is less about changing the near term fortunes of the team. For the Sharks, any help Labanc provides will be a bonus. His first game has raised expectations. But a payoff, if it happens, is more likely to happen down the road.
It is early in the 2016-17 season, but Sharks fans are impatient with the team’s lackluster start. Fans are looking for a spark. Counting on Labanc to provide this spark is both optimistic and misguided.
For the Sharks, the key players are the same as they were before Kevin Labanc donned his NHL jersey. These are the players responsible for stopping the team’s slump and moving their fortunes in a positive direction. Kevin Labanc is not a savior for this team.
It is, however, time (if not overdue) for the Sharks to make investments in the future of their younger and promising AHL players by giving them chances to play in the NHL. The value of this move is not going to be measured in November, even if this experiment is off to a promising start.
ZEKE is a native of the DC area where he witnessed the birth of the Capitals franchise. After graduating from Cornell University, which had seen hockey glory before he arrived, he moved west to San Jose. There he witnessed the birth of the Sharks franchise. His wait to witness a Championship from any of these teams finally ended in 2018.