Sharks

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.”

Why Sharks think they're turning things around after win over Oilers

Why Sharks think they're turning things around after win over Oilers

SAN JOSE -- Suffice to say, the Sharks don't look like the same team that started a six-game homestand on Nov. 1 with one of the worst records in the NHL.

With a 6-3 win over the Pacific Division-leading Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night, the Sharks have won four in a row and appear to be climbing out of the hole they dug themselves in the first month of the season.

Not to jump the gun or anything, The Sharks aren't out of the woods yet. But after the past six games, it looks like they're finally turning the corner and playing the way they expect to.

"Every game, I feel like we're more comfortable," said Tomas Hertl, who scored a goal Tuesday. "Everybody plays better. So now we have to just keep going."

The Sharks spent a good chunk of the first month of the season looking out of sync -- offensively, defensively, you name it. The culprit? Focusing too much on individual play and not working together as a unit.

"We weren't playing our system," Marc-Edouard Vlasic summarized Tuesday. "We were freelancing. We were doing our own thing. And it's funny when you stick to it, to what you do best, the results follow."

Erik Karlsson, Vlasic's defensive partner, agreed.

"We lost ourselves a little bit," said Karlsson, who had three assists Tuesday. "But right now we're working hard for each other and getting ourselves in good spots out there."

Sticking to that system yielded positive production on Tuesday against the Oilers. The Sharks scored six goals, and largely contained Oilers superstars Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. 

"We had a big task in stopping one of the best lines in hockey and I think we did a good job of that," Karlsson said. "I think everyone contributed offensively and defensively. I think we played the right way for 60 minutes even though they scored three goals. But I think we stuck with it."

"They're at the top of the division and I thought we did a good job of defending McDavid and Draisaitl as a group tonight," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer added. "I thought we had some individuals who did a really good job, but I thought everyone on the ice with those guys was aware."

Of course, getting the jump on the Oilers fewer than five minutes into the game didn't hurt, either. 

"We got the first goal, which took a little bit of the pressure off," DeBoer said. "We got to play out in front most of the night. Those kinds of things make a difference."

[RELATED: Sharks' Baker shares mental health journey in HEADSTRONG]

Now, as Hertl mentioned, the Sharks have to keep going. With an 8-10-1 record, San Jose is still under .500.

That's not good enough for a team accustomed to playing in the postseason. 

"If you're under (.500) you're not in the playoffs," Hertl said. "We're trying the best and over the last four games, we actually look like the Sharks."

If they keep looking like the Sharks that Hertl is talking about, the outlook on the season gets a little brighter.

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in 6-3 win over Pacific-best Oilers

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in 6-3 win over Pacific-best Oilers

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE -- If there was a high note for the Sharks to end their six-game homestand on, they hit it against the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday.

The Sharks offensively overpowered the Pacific Division-leading Oilers at SAP Center. Logan Couture and Erik Karlsson had multi-point nights and Barclay Goodrow registered a Gordie Howe hat trick as San Jose skated to a 6-3 victory. 

Here are three takeaways from the Sharks' fourth-straight win.

Coming alive 5-on-5

As fans are probably all too aware, the Sharks had a ton of trouble scoring goals at even strength at the start of the homestand. But as they have improved over this six-game span, their 5-on-5 game has come alive. San Jose scored five even-strength goals in the first 40 minutes Tuesday, the team's most impressive 5-on-5 performance of the season. 

To make things better, the Sharks got scoring from their bottom six in Tuesday's game courtesy of third-liner Patrick Marleau's first-period goal. If San Jose can start getting production from the fourth line as well, the Sharks' offense will be in really good shape going forward.


Playing more than 20 minutes

The Sharks went into the first intermission with a 3-0 lead but had a feisty Oilers' team pushing to get on the board. And as the Sharks learned from their back-and-forth 6-5 win over the Minnesota Wild last week, only playing well for the first 20 minutes isn't a good formula for winning games. 

But the Sharks didn't sit back on their heels, instead scoring another goal 1:26 into the second period and then another before the intermission. Even though the Oilers scored three goals in the last two periods, San Jose had enough of a lead to keep the damage minimal.

Not too shabby for a team with one of the league's worst goal differentials at the start of the homestand.

[RELATED: Sharks' Baker shares mental health journey in HEADSTRONG]

The Sharks' best game to date?

Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. The Sharks have certainly played much better over the last four games, but there are still a couple of areas they need to tighten up as they try to climb their way to a .500 record.

Although the Sharks built a big enough cushion, they did let up a bit Tuesday and allow two goals in the third period to let the Oilers make things interesting. As we discussed earlier, that's exactly how the Sharks almost gave up last week's game to the Wild.

While San Jose goaltender Martin Jones did a pretty solid job against Edmonton's offense, the defense in front of him needs to stay tight late into games so they don't end up blowing any late leads.