SAN JOSE – For the first time this season, the Sharks plucked a player from their AHL affiliate and plugged him into an NHL game. Kevin Labanc made a good account of himself in the 3-0 win in Washington on Tuesday, looking comfortable on the second line while registering one shot on goal and a plus-one rating in 13:23 of ice time in his NHL debut.
Some of his new NHL teammates may have noticed that Labanc got more five-on-five ice time than any of the forwards other than the top line of Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Joel Ward.
With the Sharks still struggling to score goals – they are 27th in the NHL with 2.31 per game – some of the forwards that are off to slow starts may need to keep an eye on more than Labanc. Several Barracuda forwards could be ready to break through at some point this season.
“I think [in] all my years coaching, it’s probably the fastest and the most talented [team],” said Barracuda coach Roy Sommer, now in his 19th season as the head coach of the Sharks’ primary AHL affiliate.
The forward group looks especially strong, as the Barracuda (3-2-0-1) have scored 22 goals in six games for a 3.67 average.
So, who could be the next recall? There are some candidates.
Former first round pick Nikolay Goldobin is off to an equally strong start as Labanc, at least on paper, with 10 points in six games. Goldobin has potted two goals and eight assists and has a plus-four rating.
“Goldie is playing the best hockey he’s played since I’ve had him,” Sommer said.
Goldobin got nine games of NHL experience early last season, scoring one goal and one assist, but it was evident that he wasn’t ready for full time duty just yet. He needed to work on his compete level and his defensive game.
Asked what he learned last season, he said: “Every game you have to play hard. If you play one game bad, you’re not going to play next game. … Just compete and do the little details. I think I’m playmaking, and the D-zone is pretty good for me.”
Timo Meier might be on the Sharks already had it not been for his bout with mononucleosis in training camp. The ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft said he’s back to 100 percent physically after losing weight and muscle from his month-long illness, but after four games with the Barracuda, he indicated that he’s still getting used to the AHL pace.
“Starting to feel more comfortable out there, just trying to build confidence and trying to stay positive,” Meier said. “It’s obviously hard in the beginning, a little frustrating, but that’s part of the game.”
Sommer, too, made it clear that Meier still has some work to do before he gets considered for the Sharks, pointing out that the 20-year-old didn’t get the benefit of playing in any NHL preseason games like Labanc, Goldobin and others did. Meier only made his Barracuda debut on Oct. 28.
“He’s just has to simplify his game,” Sommer said. “I think he’s just trying to do too much. He’s got to be north-south, and [forget] this circling and trying to put pucks through people. … It’s not going to work.”
“He’s a thoroughbred. He’s just got to calm down a little bit. When he gets the puck, [just] have a little bit more patience and not try to make a play that’s not there.”
Barclay Goodrow nearly made the team out of training camp, and Sharks coach Pete DeBoer was very complimentary of the 23-year-old that has played 74 career NHL games the past two seasons. It’s likely he’ll play at least a few NHL games this year, probably more in a bottom six role. He has two goals so far with the Barracuda, after earning AHL All-Star honors last season with 39 points (20g, 19a) in 57 games.
“[DeBoer] had good things to say when I got sent down after training camp,” Goodrow said. “You’ve just got to keep getting better, and keep grinding away, and make sure your game is in tip-top [shape] if you do get the call. You don’t want to get called up and not make the most of it.”
As one of the oldest teams in the NHL, the Sharks know they’ll have to start transitioning to a younger roster sooner than later. Sommer believes the organization is in a good position to do that. Along with the players already mentioned, he also mentioned Ryan Carpenter and Danny O'Regan as guys to keep an eye on.
“It’s a deep pool of fast, skilled kids,” Sommer said. “And they’re all young.”