Kevin Labanc recently concluded his second professional season, and the Sharks have high expectations for the 22-year-old forward. He registered 40 points in 77 games this past year. Labanc didn’t start his career with high expectations, as most sixth round picks don’t. He was selected No. 171 overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, but his offensive production exploded after the draft.
In his draft year he had 35 points in 65 games, and after being drafted, he recorded 107 points in 68 games during the 2014-15 season with the OHL’s Barrie Colts. In 2015-16, Labanc outdid himself by scoring 127 points in 65 games to capture the OHL scoring title. He was only one point shy of claiming the CHL Top Scorer Award, which Conor Garland of the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats won. The first two years of Labanc’s career have been a roller-coaster, but staying patient with Labanc may pay off.
Labanc’s Glaring Weaknesses for the Sharks
Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way. Labanc has holes in his game, just like most young players do. The biggest knock on Labanc is his defensive play. At times he looks lost in the defensive zone, and his decision-making with the puck in the defensive zone is suspect. He tries to force plays in high-risk areas, and that is something that you can’t do in the NHL while defending. Overthinking each play is a hockey player’s worst enemy, and he is the victim of that more often than not. You can tell he wants to do the right thing, but he either waits too long or forces the wrong play. When Brent Burns and Labanc are on the ice together, you can almost guarantee a turnover or mistake will occur.
In the offensive zone, Labanc’s weaknesses are similar to his defensive play. An offensive-zone mistake is less noticeable, but there are times when his overthinking leaks over to offense. He’ll see the play to make, hesitate, and then still attempt the same play after the window has closed.
Fortunately for Labanc and the Sharks, his weaknesses are fixable. He has all of the physical talents to be a great player someday, and those are the hard attributes to add. Adding defensive awareness and quicker decision-making would elevate Labanc to the type of player that the Sharks believe he can be. He’s far from a finished product, but he has a few more years before it is time to give up on him.
Labanc’s Special Offensive Talents
The place that Labanc shines the most is on the power play. He became a fixture on the top power-play unit for the Sharks this season and occupied the right point spot. His vision set up many highlight-worthy goals that had fans jump off their seats. Arguably his most noticeable assist was his most recent against the Vegas Golden Knights in Round 2 of the playoffs this year.
Labanc’s patience and poise with the puck on the power play is something that the Sharks’ power play was missing without Joe Thornton. Besides Thornton (who is currently without a contract), there isn’t a better player to put in that spot on the current Sharks roster. Labanc filled that role nicely and should be a fixture on the top unit for years to come, assuming he can round out the rest of his game.
A great shot is a skill that all modern-day goal scorers have, and Labanc’s is up there with the best. His release is quick, and the velocity that he gets on the puck rivals that of Brent Burns. He doesn’t utilize his shot nearly enough and it isn’t the most accurate with it, but it’s a shot that defenses have to respect when he’s on the ice. In the first game of the season, Labanc scored two goals with the second being an absolute heater from the top of the faceoff circle. If he can increase his shot volume, he’s a guy that could be a 30-goal scorer, and those don’t grow on trees.
Labanc is the type of Sharks prospect that Doug Wilson doesn’t usually take a chance on. Wilson likes the safe draft picks that are sound in the defensive zone at a young age, and often passes over high-risk, high-reward players. The last prospect that had the same narrative for the Sharks was Nikolay Goldobin, and he was shipped out of town prematurely for Jannik Hansen. Wilson appears to have long-term plans for Labanc, and it would be fair to give the 22-year-old a couple more years to polish his game.