Rookies Meier, Labanc locking down spots on Sharks roster

Rookies Meier, Labanc locking down spots on Sharks roster

SAN JOSE – Despite the fact that they are the defending Western Conference champions, the Sharks are in a bit of a transitional phase with their roster nearly halfway through the season.

And really, that was the plan all along. After a long stretch of having a system devoid of top end prospects (due in part to trading picks away to load up for playoff runs, and not having high first round choices), the Sharks put an emphasis on stockpiling draft picks about four years ago, with the obvious hope that some of those prospects would develop into full time NHL players.

Kevin Labanc, 21, and Timo Meier, 20, both find themselves as key contributors on a team that is in first place in the Pacific Division. While it’s no guarantee they’ll remain with the Sharks for the rest of the season, their play so far suggests they will stick. Labanc has four goals in his last nine games, and has earned his way onto the second power play unit. Meier, the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft, is also adjusting nicely to the pro game after scoring a goal in his NHL debut on Dec. 16, and more ice time is likely coming his way.

Joe Thornton is impressed by both kids.

“[Labanc], just the ability to get in position to score – I think he’s a very, very smart hockey player. He wants to score every night, which is fun to see as an older player,” Thornton said. “Timo, just his speed stands out, and how strong he is. Both guys are playing huge roles on our team right now.”

Labanc is a bit further along than Meier, playing 22 games to Meier’s five. He’s gaining chemistry on the second line with center Logan Couture, and that’s where he’ll be on Friday when the Sharks resume their schedule against Philadelphia.

The leading scorer in all of junior hockey last season with 127 points in 65 games, Labanc knows he’s still in the proving stage to coach Pete DeBoer. He also now knows he has the ability to play, and produce, in the best league in the world.

“Yeah, absolutely. Definitely getting more comfortable, more confident every game,” said Labanc, before adding that getting used to playing so many games is the biggest hurdle. “It’s a lot on the body. … You’ve just got to really take care of your body on and off the ice.”

Despite just one point in five games, Meier is having an impact with 19 shots. He is on the third line with Chris Tierney and Joonas Donskoi, and he, too, will remain in against the Flyers.

“I think [I’ve] had my chances,” Meier said. “In the NHL it’s not easy to score, but I feel like I’m getting in front of the net and getting my shots. Now it’s just putting them in and taking another step to bury those pucks. It’s been a lot of fun.”

DeBoer has liked what he’s seen from Meier, and hinted at a bigger role for the Swiss native in the near future.

“I like his game,” DeBoer said. “It’s on me to try and find him some more ice. I think he’s starting to earn [it]. He’s looking dangerous out there, and I think he’s knocking on the door to do some real good things here.”

* * *

It’s been years since the Sharks had such a young player make a real impact. You have to go back to 19-year-old Tomas Hertl’s rookie season of 2013-14 when he busted out with 15 goals in his first 35 career games before a right knee injury in December derailed his campaign.

The NHL, though, is trending younger. It’s vital to find young players that can play sooner than later, and that’s probably even truer for the Sharks, who rely on older veterans more than any other contending club.

Thornton recognizes that.

“It’s huge. It pushes everybody every day,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest thing. Plus, their vibe, their youth – it’s exciting for us older guys. Everything is positive right now.”

It also leaves DeBoer with the welcome challenge of deciding who to play and who to sit. That’s already led to him scratching regulars like Joel Ward, Joonas Donskoi, Tommy Wingels and Matt Nieto. Some of that is message-sending to guys that might not be playing well, but it’s mostly just a case of numbers.

The Sharks have a glut of forwards with Labanc and Meier on the scene, and that’s despite Hertl remaining out with a knee injury.

“You’ve got to show up every night, or there’s guys going to be playing in your spot,” Thornton said. “That’s what keeps this team really motivated, too, is you’re never safe.”

Despite that internal competition, though, both Labanc and Meier said that the Sharks’ room has been a welcoming one. Although the group features at least one surefire Hall of Famer in Thornton, several Olympic medalists and players that regularly compete in international tournaments – as well as being the defending Western Conference champions – if you’re in the NHL dressing room, you’re treated like an NHL player.

“They just let you come in with open arms,” Labanc said.

Thornton said: “We’ve always done a good job here of bringing in guys and making guys feel comfortable. You could ask both guys, they feel real comfortable in his locker room. It’s a testament to the quality of guys we’ve got in this room.”

It leads to good things on the ice, too.

"The older guys have helped us a lot," Meier said. "I think moving forward we really want to look up to those guys, and take stuff out of their games and put it in ours.”

After a perfect week, Sharks have playoff breathing room with three weeks to go


After a perfect week, Sharks have playoff breathing room with three weeks to go

The Sharks’ playoff outlook is a lot rosier after winning all four of their games last week. They are now four points clear of the Los Angeles Kings in the second Wild Card spot, and three points up the Anaheim Ducks, who are third place in the Pacific Division.

Those are four-point and three-point improvements, respectively, over those same spots last week. The Sharks even picked up ground on the first-place Vegas Golden Knights, and are eight points back of the Pacific’s leaders, with two head-to-head matchups remaining.

That’s not quite close enough to warrant inclusion in a look at the playoff picture headed into the week, but could be next week if San Jose continues to make up ground. Otherwise, it’s still worth examining where the Sharks stand in regards to the Pacific and the Wild Card.

San Jose Sharks (Second in the Pacific, 89 points)

Games Remaining: 10

On the Docket:  3/20 vs New Jersey, 3/22 vs Vegas, 3/24 vs Calgary

Outlook: Over the next two weeks, the schedule really starts to become difficult. San Jose has only two games remaining against teams on the outside looking in, and is just 2-6-2 in its last 10 against teams currently in a playoff spot. If that trend continues, the newfound breathing room could start to disappear rather quickly.

Anaheim Ducks (Third in the Pacific, 86 points)

Games Remaining: Nine

On the Docket: 3/21 at Calgary, 3/23 at Winnipeg, 3/25 at Edmonton

Outlook: The Ducks have now won three in a row, including next Sunday against the red-hot New Jersey Devils. They’ll play four of their final five road games in the next nine days, and all but one of their opponents is not in playoff position. Anaheim’s just 15-14-7 away from the Honda Center, though. With the fewest games remaining of any playoff team, the Ducks will help to move up any further.

Colorado Avalanche (First Wild Card, 86 points)

Games Remaining: 10

On the Docket: 3/20 at Chicago, 3/22 vs Los Angeles, 3/24 vs Vegas

Outlook: Give it up for surefire Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon and the Avalanche, winners of three of four last week. Other than a slip-up on the second night of a back-to-back in Nashville, Colorado was outright dominant, outscoring opponents 16-7. A midweek matchup against Los Angeles could create some Wild Card separation.

Los Angeles Kings (Second Wild Card, 84 points)

Games Remaining: 10

On the Docket: 3/19 at Minnesota, 3/20 at Winnipeg, 3/22 at Colorado, 3/24 at Edmonton

Outlook: The Kings picked up points in three of four, including on both nights of a back-to-back. Their schedule really picks up this week, as they’ll face three playoff-bound teams from the Central on the road. The struggling Stars remain on their heels, although the Kings have a game in hand.

Dallas Stars (Ninth in the West, 84 points)

Games Remaining: Nine

On the Docket: 3/20 at Washington, 3/23 vs Boston. 3/25 vs Vancouver

Outlook: Is Dallas in the middle of a Lone Star letdown? We wrote last week that a difficult schedule could create openings for the teams chasing them and boy, did it ever. The Stars went 0-2-2 on the week, and picked up just one point against the lottery-bound Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. They’ll surely relish a matchup against the Canucks in six days, as it’s their only remaining game against a non-playoff team.

St. Louis Blues (10th in the West, 83 points)

Games Remaining: 10

On the Docket: 3/21 vs Boston, 3/23 vs Vancouver, 3/24 at Columbus

Outlook: For the second straight season, it’s not quite time to stick a fork in the St. Louis Blues. Yes, they are once again in the playoff hunt after trading one of their best players at the trade deadline, and won three out of four to move with in a point of the final Wild Card spot. The Blues have now won four of five, and still have an uphill climb ahead. After last season, is it ever safe to rule them out?

The Departed: Calgary Flames (11th in the West, 80 points)

This section is reserved for teams that have fallen out of the playoff picture since our last look at the playoff picture, and the Calgary Flames have earned(?) the inaugural (dis)honor. The Flames failed to keep the door to the playoffs ajar thanks to a 7-4 loss to the Sharks on Friday, and it slammed shut after a 4-0 loss in Sin City on Sunday. They have to jump three teams and cover four points of ground to earn a Wild Card spot. The latest stretch stings, but the Flames will likely look on a four-game, post-trade deadline losing streak as when their playoff hopes burned out.

Sharks overcome early deficit, injuries to finish road trip with third straight win


Sharks overcome early deficit, injuries to finish road trip with third straight win

VANCOUVER --Timo Meier's second goal of the game snapped a third-period tie and the San Jose Sharks beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-3 on Saturday night for their fourth consecutive victory.

Logan Couture and Kevin Labanc each had a goal and an assist, and Tomas Hertl scored into an empty net with 25 seconds remaining for the Sharks, who are 7-2-0 in their last nine games.

Nikolay Goldobin, Alex Edler and Bo Horvat scored power-play goals and Sam Gagner had two assists for the Canucks, who lost their sixth consecutive game - their longest losing streak of the season.

Goldobin's goal at 10:48 of the first period snapped a scoreless streak of 222 minutes, 57 minutes for the Canucks, who had been shut out in three consecutive losses.

The Sharks had allowed just two power-play goals in their previous 17 games, but gave up three against Vancouver. The only other time San Jose allowed three power-play goals in a game was in an opening-night loss to Philadelphia.

Aaron Dell, making his first start since Feb. 22, made 28 saves for the Sharks. Vancouver's Jacob Markstrom stopped 25 shots.

Meier put the Sharks ahead at 6:07 of the third with a shot from the faceoff circle that went under Markstrom's blocker. The Canucks came close with just over six minutes left, but Hertl scooped a loose puck off the goal line.

Vancouver scored twice with the man-advantage in the second period to tie the game at 3.

The Sharks took a 3-1 lead just 1:47 into the period when Meier tipped in Brenden Dillion's shot from the point.

Horvat started Vancouver's comeback, scoring just 6 seconds into a power play. Dell stopped Gagner's slap shot but Horvat jammed home the rebound. Edler tied it with a blast from the point at 11:48. It was his first power-play goal in 88 games dating to Feb. 17, 2017.

The Sharks scored 1:10 apart in the first period to erase a 1-0 deficit.

Goldobin opened the scoring when he took a pass from defenseman Derrick Pouilot and snapped a shot from the face-off circle that sailed over Dell's shoulder. The San Jose goalie was screened by Jake Virtanen.

Labanc tied it on a power play at 14:48. Joe Pavelski's shot was stopped by Markstrom, but he managed to get his own rebound and passed it to Labanc at the side of the net.

The Sharks went ahead on Couture's 29th of the season at 16:08. He took a feed from Hertl, fought off a check by Virtanen and chipped the puck past Markstrom.

NOTES: Defenseman Chris Tanev returned to Vancouver lineup for his first game since breaking his leg Feb. 8 against Tampa Bay ... San Jose center Melker Karlsson went to the dressing favoring his right leg early in the first period after blocking a shot. ... San Jose's Marc-Edouard Vlasic left in the second period after being hit in the chest by a puck. ... The Canucks' franchise record for a scoring drought is 234 minutes, 52 seconds, set March 16-24, 2016. ... The longest goal drought by a team in the expansion era is 262 minutes, 3 seconds, set by the Minnesota North Stars from Jan. 28-Feb. 6, 1988.


Sharks: vs. New Jersey on Tuesday night.

Canucks: at Vegas on Tuesday night.