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How Kevin Labanc will help Sharks fill goal-scoring void this season

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AP

How Kevin Labanc will help Sharks fill goal-scoring void this season

Editor's note: The Sharks open training camp later this week, looking to replace nearly 60 regular-season goals from departed forwards Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist. Before camp officially begins, NBC Sports California is examining the players who will help San Jose fill that goal-scoring void. We continue with Kevin Labanc. 

When projecting the Sharks' lines entering training camp, four of the six spots on the top two lines can already be written down in ink. Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl will each center one of them, with Timo Meier and Evander Kane each flanking one of them on one side.

The two remaining spots, previously occupied by Joe Pavelski and Gustav Nyquist, are now up for grabs after both left in free agency.

Someone is going to play on the right side of the scoring lines, and Kevin Labanc is as good of a bet to do it as anyone else on the team. Assuming he does, Labanc will be in prime position to replace a hefty chunk of all the goals the Sharks lost from last season -- more than 20 percent of last season's franchise-best total.

Nearly all of the reasons to expect a greater offensive output from Labanc in the season ahead are related to increased opportunity. Labanc has increased his scoring total from 20 to 40 to 56 points in each of his three seasons thus far, despite averaging between 13:41 and 14:21 average minutes of ice time per game over that span. With Labanc earmarked for a spot in the top six, it would stand to reason that his minutes will increase, and so too will his scoring output.

Labanc became a mainstay on the power play last season, and most assuredly will retain that status this coming year. His 18 power-play assists were tied for the second-most on the team and ranked first among all forwards last year, as his passing ability jumped to a new level. Moving forward, though, some of those passes are likely to turn into shots, as Pavelski and his 12 power-play goals and nearly three minutes per game with the man advantage are no longer around. Considering Labanc is blessed with one of the best shots on the team, it would not be surprising to see San Jose attempt to make him more of a focal point of the power-play attack.

[RELATED: Sharks goalie Jones unveils cyborg-inspired mask for season]

Speaking of Labanc's shot, he did post a career-best shot percentage last season (13.1 percent), but there's no reason to believe he couldn't improve upon that further. Remember, he won't turn 24 years old until December. And even if Labanc were simply to repeat that same shot percentage this coming year, he'd likely end up with more goals as a result of attempting more shots. In fact, it's entirely possible he could end up with more goals even with a worse shot percentage.

It's not rocket science. Pavelski is gone, and Labanc is the odds-on favorite for the greatest minutes increase of any forward on the roster, or at least those in contention for the top six. He has got an electric shot, and he should be in a position to utilize it more frequently. The Sharks might not replace all of the goals they lost in the offseason, but Labanc is certainly capable of helping to fill the void.

Players who will help Sharks fill goal-scoring void in 2019-20

Timo Meier

Sharks' Logan Couture avoids scare, returns to team in time of need

Sharks' Logan Couture avoids scare, returns to team in time of need

The Sharks have been below .500 since Dec. 10, but you can trace the true death knell of San Jose's season back to the fractured ankle Logan Couture sustained in the second period of a 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 7.

Prior to that defeat, the Sharks were finding their stride, earning five out of a possible six points over their previous three games, all on the road. San Jose actually prevailed in its first two games after Couture's injury, but would go on to lose five of the next six, all but vanquishing what little playoff hopes the Sharks had left. It didn't help matters that Tomas Hertl tore ligaments in his knee during that stretch, as well.

Hertl was ruled out for the season. Couture, on the other hand, returned from a 17-game absence in San Jose's 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

Couture didn't figure into the scoring, but that's understandable considering it has been nearly seven weeks since he last practiced. He wasn't able to do so prior to Tuesday's loss, but interim coach Bob Boughner was glad regardless to have the Sharks' captain back in the lineup.

"It was nice to see his name on the board," Boughner told reporters at Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday. "After morning skate, he felt that there was a chance he could play. Obviously, he's still getting his feet underneath him. His game speed is off. He's still saying that he had two or three chances to score goals tonight, so it was good to see him back."

Arguably more important than the outcome of the game was the fact that Couture emerged from it relatively unscathed. He did get a brief scare late in the second period when he went to the locker room after taking a shot to the foot, but he was back on the ice for the start of the third.

True to character, Couture was his own harshest critic following the loss, pointing the finger at himself for the frustrating outcome.

"I wish I played a little bit better, but I'm OK," Couture explained. "It's disappointing because if I score those goals or those chances, we're probably still playing right now. So, tough one."

Couture described his best scoring chance as missing "by seven feet", and admitted the lack of practice time likely played into that. However, the captain understood his team needed him, even if he wasn't in top form.

"I was cleared," Couture said. "I still haven't gotten in a practice, so my hands I knew weren't going to be great, but I figured it's been a rough couple days."

[RELATED: Wilson excited to see what Sharks' young players can do]

Couture, obviously, was referring to the passing of the NHL trade deadline, which saw several of his longtime teammates -- Brenden Dillon, Patrick Marleau and Barclay Goodrow -- head to Eastern Conference contenders. The draft picks San Jose got back in those trades should help the franchise eventually return to contention, but in the meantime, it might be a tad lonely in the Sharks' locker room.

Less so now that Couture's back, at least.

Sharks takeaways: What we learned from rough 4-2 road loss vs. Flyers

Sharks takeaways: What we learned from rough 4-2 road loss vs. Flyers

BOX SCORE

The Sharks came out of the trade deadline the same way they went into it, suffering a road loss to an Eastern Conference opponent in which San Jose wasn't all that competitive.

In a 4-2 loss Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center, the Sharks fell behind the Philadelphia Flyers within the opening two minutes. They managed to go into the first intermission with the score tied, but the Flyers mostly controlled the final two periods. Philadelphia scored twice in the second, and the depleted San Jose lineup lacked the firepower to keep up.

With the loss, the Sharks conclude a winless four-game road trip in which they were outscored 13-6 and never tallied more than two goals in any single contest.

Here are three takeaways from another loss that revealed San Jose's shortcomings.

Not Burns' best

Several of the Sharks' best players are either injured or now playing for other teams. One of the few who remains in San Jose's lineup -- defenseman Brent Burns -- is unlikely to favorably remember Tuesday's defeat.

The Flyers' first goal of the game came on a power play resulting from Burns' early hooking penalty. He was also on the ice for both of Philadelphia's goals in the second period, at least one of which he likely could have prevented if not for a bad turnover. Offensively, Burns had a rather pedestrian performance for his standards, finishing with zero points and two shots on goal.

In Burns' defense, he has taken on a larger load of the minutes in the aftermath of Erik Karlsson's season-ending injury, averaging nearly 27 minutes per game since the fellow former Norris Trophy winner went down on Feb. 14. That said, San Jose will be at a talent deficit throughout most of its remaining games, and if Burns is struggling, that will be too tough to overcome more often than not.

Ears burning

Prior to Tuesday's game, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson explained that he's looking forward to seeing what some of San Jose's younger, less-proven players can do with their increased opportunities throughout the remainder of the season. Although the Sharks lost to the Flyers, Wilson has to be pleased with certain individual performances.

Of the few youngsters Wilson specifically mentioned by name, Joel Kellman, was included. The 25-year-old Swedish winger didn't take long to show why, pulling San Jose even with the Sharks' first goal of the night. 

Defenseman Jake Middleton got the primary assist on Kellman's goal, just as he did on Tim Heed's goal in the first game of the road trip. Tuesday marked Middleton's fourth NHL game since being called up from the AHL last week, as it did for Noah Gregor, who managed to notch his second goal of the season with a wicked slap shot in the third period.

Kellman, Middleton and Gregor are the type of players Wilson was talking about prior to the game. Afterward, the GM has to like what he saw from them.

[RELATED: Wilson pleased with Sharks' haul, but work is just starting]

Dell dropping off

Tuesday marked the fourth loss in goaltender Aaron Dell's last five starts, over which he has allowed 19 goals against. That's not a good trend, but frankly, it's not as big of a deal as it would have been a few weeks ago.

Heading into the trade deadline, the Sharks had every reason to see what they could get for the pending unrestricted free agent. Had Dell's struggles occurred earlier, it likely would have diminished whatever San Jose got in return for him. Well, no trade was made, and Dell will remain with the Sharks for the duration of the season.

That is likely to be the extent of it, however. Assuming San Jose is unable to unload Martin Jones' hefty contract, it is difficult to see a situation in which Dell re-signs with the Sharks in the offseason. As such, he needs to get back on track -- not to build up his value as a trade piece, but as a free agent instead.