Last summer, San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson pulled the ultimate Jedi mind trick on Kevin Labanc. This summer, to get the restricted free agent re-signed, Wilson will have to use a little more force, fitting him in the lineup to stay.
It may not be at the top of the list, but re-signing Labanc should at least be one of Wilson’s offseason priorities. The real trick this time is making room for the 24-year-old and, while another $1 million deal would be perfect from the Sharks’ perspective, it likely won’t cut it from Labanc’s.
Labanc’s Numbers Take a Hit
True, Labanc took a step back from a production standpoint. He scored just 33 points in 70 games whereas he had been coming off a career-high 56 (in 82) before signing at a discount last summer.
However, Labanc’s goal-scoring (14) was about where you’d expect and he remains a top-six option for the suddenly offensively challenged Sharks. That’s really more than you can say for the likes Marcus Sorensen ($1.5 million) and Melker Karlsson ($2 million), each of whom currently has a higher cap hit in their respective deals, contracts Wilson himself gave them.
You could make a case Karlsson and Sorensen are incredibly valuable on the other side of the puck as penalty killers on the top-ranked unit in the league. You’d have a point too. However, Labanc is a young playmaking talent and a 20-goal scorer in the making. He’s much more valuable and there’s no way to argue otherwise.
Labanc vs. Connolly vs. Donskoi
Think along the lines of Florida Panthers forward Brett Connolly, who plays the same position and also finished with 33 points this season. If Connolly can earn $3.5 million per season on what is widely to considered to be a very fair deal, there’s no reason Labanc can’t earn at least that much as a player who’s over three years younger with more upside.
Labanc could realistically ask for more. However, if Wilson is smart he would try to keep the average annual value down on a longer-term deal considering Labanc’s 60-point potential. In so doing, he would also theoretically prevent another Joonas Donskoi situation from materializing.
Donskoi of course left the Sharks for the Colorado Avalanche via free agency last summer. He also plays on the right side and, as a complementary scoring winger, he notched the same amount of points as Labanc this past season (33). More significantly, he signed his $3.9 million per season deal with the Avs after having scored just 37 last season with the Sharks (compared to Labanc’s 56).
It was obviously a slight overpay for Donskoi on the part of the Avs. Nevertheless, the fact remains it’s an accurate reflection of what a 40-point player can fetch on the open market. Labanc is just a few years away from unrestricted free agency, meaning there is a very good chance he could bolt for a similar amount if not more, due to projected inflation. And that’s only if you assume his 33 points scored this season are an accurate reflection themselves of what he brings to the table.
Time to Lock Up Labanc
That’s likely not the case. Labanc’s got a higher ceiling, based on how his scoring rates have increased every season he’s been in the league, with exception to this last one on the goal-scoring-starved Sharks, who struggled as a whole and were among the worst offensive teams in the league with 180 goals in 70 games.
As a result, there’s no better time than now to lock up Labanc. Ideally, you’d want to pay a player what they’re worth, not what they were worth. Wilson has the golden opportunity to pay Labanc less than what he will be worth as he’s theoretically entering his prime now.
Of course, as much Labanc’s offense would come in handy, the Sharks need cap space first. Easier said than done. The Sharks’ highest-paid players all have no-trade clauses. Timo Meier who finds himself at the top of the team pay structure’s second tier with a cap hit of $6 million doesn’t. However, he he just led the team in scoring, albeit with a modest 22 goals and 49 points. He’s not going anywhere.
Jones-ing for Cap Space
Just below Meier is goalie Martin Jones and his $5.75 million hit. Jones also has a no-trade clause, but he can be bought out, which admittedly would be less than ideal. Any half-decent alternative to Jones in net would eat up whatever space they save, except for perhaps prospect Josef Korenar ($723,333), who admittedly had a sub-par 2019-20 with the San Jose Barracuda in the American Hockey League. Nevertheless, promoting him and going with Aaron Dell, who also needs to be re-signed, as their No. 1 would be one possible Band-Aid on the problem.
Dell actually outplayed Jones down the stretch, going 8-9-1 with a .911 save percentage in 18 games since the start of 2020. The Sharks only gave Jones 11 games in that span, in which he went 4-6-1 with a .907 save percentage. So, the writing is clearly on the wall in some respect. Furthermore, Paul Martin’s buy-out is coming off the books. So, there is both precedent and space for the resulting cap hit from Jones’ theoretical buy-out. And space is the name of the game at this juncture.
Admittedly, fixing the Sharks’ goaltending dilemma should be a higher priority for Wilson than inking Labanc. However, buying out Jones is one possible solution, even if it’s not the best one available. Ultimately, hard decisions need to be made, but any decision that fails to make room for Labanc is not one worth making, especially if Wilson should be able to get him under contract cost-effectively. If you’re Wilson, you can’t waste opportunities such as this, to get a member of the core under contract on a cheap deal. That’s how the Sharks will get out of this cap crunch eventually, slowly but surely.
Granted, the $1 million deal Wilson got Labanc to sign last summer would be the gold standard, one that the GM has no realistic chance of attaining again here. However, it is definitely possible for the Sharks to keep all their key free agents, Labanc, the most key of all, included. Buying out Jones just may be their only hope, though.