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.”

Sharks need better goaltending with NHL playoffs just around corner


Sharks need better goaltending with NHL playoffs just around corner

SAN JOSE – Goaltending has been a hot topic all season for the Sharks. Even when they’ve been winning games, the performance between the pipes has been under scrutiny.

Now, with the playoffs just a couple weeks away and San Jose tryng to snap a season-long five-game winning streak, the performance of Sharks goaltenders Martin Jones and Aaron Dell is yet again being scrutinized.

There’s no mistaking it – they need to be better.

Even Sharks coach Peter DeBoer, who isn’t one to call out players after a loss, seemed particularly perturbed with the Sharks' play in net. He said just as much after San Jose's fifth straight defeat, a 4-3 loss to the lowly Anaheim Ducks on Friday.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat it, but I think we had them for six chances, and they scored four goals,” he said at the time. “You can’t lay it at one guy's feet, but you can’t win in this league with [an.800 to .900] save percentage. We’ve got to find a way to get an extra save, and on (the other) end we’ve got to find a way to get another goal.”

DeBoer isn’t wrong. Jones might be tied for third place among all NHL goalies with 34 wins under his belt, but his .898 save percentage is 58th out of 69 goalies who have played at least 10 games. Dell's .887 save percentage is 67th. Combined, the Sharks' .891 save percentage is last in the league.

In March, a month in which the Sharks have gone 6-4-1, San Jose has scored 37 goals and allowed 36. Those aren’t stats you want to see heading into the postseason.

To be fair, all the blame can’t be laid at the feet of the netminders, much like DeBoer said. Defensive breakdowns in front of the net don’t do Jones and Dell any favors – and with a banged-up blue line that’s missing Erik Karlsson and Radim Simek, those mistakes become more apparent.

It also doesn’t help the Sharks' offense has dried up, scoring no more than three goals in each of the last five losses. Leading goal-scorer Joe Pavelski has missed the last three, making matters worse.

But San Jose still, as DeBoer mentioned, needs to get more key saves from its goaltenders. 

[RELATED: Why Sharks believe five-game skid will strengthen them]

Now, with the Sharks having secured a playoff spot over the past week, the last few games of the season are going to be focused on being ready for the first round. In addition to getting the lineup healthier, the Sharks also have to focus on allowing fewer goals. A better defensive effort will go a long way, but Jones and Dell also have to buckle down and stop the puck more if San Jose is to hang on to home-ice advantage in the first round.

Don’t expect the goaltending conversation to cool off during these last weeks of the regular season. Goaltending is going to be a major focus as the playoffs get closer. If the Sharks want to still be playing hockey in May and June, it simply has to be better than it is right now.

Sharks not satisfied with single point, believe skid will strengthen them

Sharks not satisfied with single point, believe skid will strengthen them

Well, the Sharks certainly made it interesting. Every time the Ducks scored a goal on Friday evening, the Sharks came back and were able to tie things up. They even got the game-tying goal late in the third period that took their contest into overtime – at least, before they lost 4-3.

Perhaps at a different time of year, getting their first point in five games would feel better. Not on this night. 

The focus remains on the work to be done with just seven games left in the regular season. For Team Teal, they need to clean their game up and get back into the win column.

“It’s better than nothing, but overall, we’re just not finding ways to win games now,” Timo Meier told the media in Anaheim regarding the single point. “We’ve got to find a way to win games. It’s an important time of the year. Playoffs are really close.”

San Jose put a better effort on the ice on Friday than they did the previous evening in LA against the Kings, but the opportunistic Ducks were able to bury more of their chances,

"I don’t think we gave them very much," Peter DeBoer said. "Every chance they got, they stuck in the net, though."

DeBoer was more critical of the team a second night in a row, and rightfully so. Despite outshooting the opposition, the Sharks weren’t able to find the back of the net enough times. They allowed two goals while playing on the penalty kill and tallied 14 giveaways. Plus, outside of Meier’s power-play marker, San Jose still went one-for-five on the man advantage. Despite tying the score up three times, the Sharks couldn’t keep the Ducks from responding.

Clearly, all areas of the game need to be tweaked.

“We’ve got to find a way to get an extra save, and on (the other) end we’ve got to find a way to get another goal,” DeBoer said. “We could’ve used a power-play goal tonight -- another one.”

Perhaps the only silver lining, as Meier put it, is that the Sharks are going through this stretch now instead of once they get into the playoffs. San Jose is still trying to get some of its key players healthy and into the lineup so they can make a deep playoff run with the lines and pairs they want. The goal, at least at the moment, is to make sure this five-game skid is a lesson to learn from and not a prelude to the future.

"Get stronger as a team, get tighter as a group, and learn," Meier said. "It’s going to make us stronger going into the playoffs because there are going to be lots of ups and downs coming up. It’s going to make us stronger and we’ve got to react the right way.”