Sharks free-agency decisions: Should winger Kevin Labanc stay or go?


Sharks free-agency decisions: Should winger Kevin Labanc stay or go?

You'll be hard-pressed to identify a Sharks player who had more of a turnaround season than Kevin Labanc

For the first portion of the season, his biggest contribution was being the guy who regularly served the "too many men" penalty for the Sharks. But after spending solid playing time on a line with Joe Thornton, the 23-year-old winger evolved into a difference-maker during San Jose's topsy-turvy playoff run.

Now Labanc is one of many young Sharks who will become restricted free agents on July 1. Here's why he could stay in San Jose, and why he could be headed somewhere else.

Why he could stay

Second only to Timo Meier, Labanc is the top pending RFA the Sharks want to keep for the future.

The sixth-round pick from the 2014 draft broke onto the scene in the second half of the season. He started his first full season with 24 points (4 goals, 20 assists), 24 penalty minutes, and a minus-five rating. Then, from the start of the new year up through the end of the regular season, he improved to 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists), 12 penalty minutes and a plus-four rating. 

Some of that improvement can be contributed to working so closely with a veteran like Thornton. But it also has to do with changing his work ethic.

"Kevin’s a kid that has worked at his game since I got here, since four years ago at development camp,” head coach Peter DeBoer said back in February after Labanc registered his first NHL hat trick against the Oilers. “He’s learned how to work. He’s learned from the Joe Thorntons and the Joe Pavelskis and the Brent Burnses of the world to put in extra time and take care of your body.

"He’s changed everything about his habits. (You) get rewarded for that.”

Why he could go

Even though Labanc is a restricted free agent the Sharks will want to sign, there's still a chance that doesn't happen.

San Jose still has cap space to clear up after signing Erik Karlsson to an eight-year deal earlier this week, and still has 20 other pending free agents without contracts. After trading long-time Sharks' defenseman Justin Braun to the Flyers, it's clear very few players are safe from trade talks -- even one who has worked as hard as Labanc. 

The verdict

Even with the Sharks primed to make more moves this offseason, it seems likely No. 62 will stay in San Jose. 

Labanc put in a lot of work in the 2018-19 season to improve on his individual game and have a positive impact on the team. This sets the stage for him to continue evolving his game, and the Sharks likely want him around for the foreseeable future. With San Jose looking to crank up their depth scoring this season, Labanc is a staple piece they'll want to keep in the mix -- especially if his linemate Thornton returns for another season.

If Labanc can have a better start to next season than he did the last, there's no telling the positive impact he'll have on San Jose's offensive depth. 

Watch Sharks' Evander Kane score first-period hat trick, make history


Watch Sharks' Evander Kane score first-period hat trick, make history

Evander Kane's second career hat trick was a first for the Sharks. 

The San Jose winger scored three goals in the first period Wednesday against the Carolina Hurricanes at SAP Center, becoming the first player in franchise history to score a hat trick in the opening 20 minutes. 

Kane opened the scoring 8:36 into the night, gathering a loose puck in the slot and firing a shot past Hurricanes goaltender -- and former Shark -- James Reimer.

The Hurricanes tied the game just over two minutes later, but Kane gave the Sharks the lead once more with a power-play goal. Kane scored his second shortly after Reimer robbed him with a glove save that the winger contended crossed the goal line. 

It didn't end up mattering, as Kane capitalized on another loose puck in the slot for his second goal with 2:41 remaining in the first period. 

Kane scored his third fewer than two-and-a-half minutes after his second. With the Sharks on the power play once more, a wide-open Kane redirected Brent Burns' point shot past Reimer to double San Jose's lead. 

[RELATED: Sharks' Labanc keeping focus on future after team's turnaround]

Kane's three first-period goals were the most the Sharks have scored in a single period all season. The 3-1 advantage they took into the first intermission was just the second lead the Sharks have had after the first 20 minutes all season. 

The Sharks probably won't have to wait as long for their next first-period lead as they did for their first first-period hat trick. 

Sharks face 'big test' vs. Hurricanes as they seek third straight win

Sharks face 'big test' vs. Hurricanes as they seek third straight win

SAN JOSE -- The Sharks appear to be bouncing back from a dismal start to their season with two wins in a row. But they face new challenges as they continue their homestand against the Carolina Hurricanes.

"It's a big test for us," head coach Peter DeBoer told reporters during Wednesday's morning skate. "You just look at the analytics. Number one in the league in creating scoring chances off of the rush, in the top two or three of creating offense. They're scoring in bunches. (There are) a lot of different things there you're going to have to deal with -- maybe the best defense corps in the league one through six, and they're getting great goaltending. That's why their record is what it is."

Of course, San Jose is looking to jump on the Canes early, especially since the Sharks are hosting and playing on the tail-end of a back-to-back. They beat the Los Angeles Kings 2-0 in LA on Tuesday night. But when a team is as good as Carolina is, there's a little more to it.

"We just can't beat ourselves," DeBoer said. "We know what they do well. It's exactly like when we play playoff hockey against an opponent. You've got to take away what they do well or not feed what they do well. And at the same time, try to establish our own game. That's something I've talked about since day one."

Multiple Sharks contributed to the team's 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Sunday. Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, and Kevin Labanc all found the back of the net while Martin Jones stopped 29 of 30 shots that came his way and the penalty kill went a perfect four-for-four. But DeBoer knows his team's overall game still has another level it needs to find.

"We won the last game and I thought we were better defensively," he said. "But we only generated 20 shots, We've got to find a way to start getting a four-line identity where we're harder to play against and spend more time in the other team's end."

[RELATED: Kevin Labanc focused on future during turnaround]

The Hurricanes visit SAP Center with a 6-1-0 overall record on the season and are undefeated through three road contests.

San Jose went 1-0-1 against Carolina last season, tallying their solo win at home 5-1. The Sharks are 20-17-0-3 all-time through 40 games against the Hurricanes.