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.
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.