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

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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. 

Sharks free-agency decisions: Should defenseman Tim Heed stay or go?

Sharks free-agency decisions: Should defenseman Tim Heed stay or go?

When it came to filling the void created by an injured Erik Karlsson, Tim Heed was often tasked with the job. The 28-year-old defenseman played a big role when the Sharks' blue line was riddled with injuries this past season, and put together the best regular-season campaign of his professional career.

Now, Heed is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Like everyone else on San Jose's long list of pending free agents, his future with the team isn't entirely clear.

Here's a look at why Tim Heed could still be playing for the Sharks next season, and why he could also be headed out the door.

Why he could stay

Of the blueliners who came off the bench this past season, Heed was the most productive with 13 points (two goals, 11 assists) in 37 games played. He was also effective on the defensive side of the puck, ending the season with a plus-9 rating, which was tied for fourth best on the team with Timo Meier. WIth room to improve on last season, Heed could be a good option for San Jose, 

Sharks' head coach Peter DeBoer was complimentary of Heed when he penciled him into the lineup on Dec. 23 for the first time in a month. In that game, Heed opened up the scoring for the Sharks with a power-play goal and DeBoer extended Heed's ice time as the game wore on. Heed even took a couple of shifts alongside Norris Trophy candidate Brent Burns.

“He’s worked awful hard off the ice and practicing in order to wait for these opportunities," DeBoer said of Heed at the time. "You never know how they’re going to come. Is it an injury? Suspension? He did a good job tonight.”

If the Sharks need someone to come off the bench in the future, Heed is a good candidate.

Why he could go

While having someone like Heed in San Jose's arsenal can be beneficial, the Sharks may still be looking to move him in an effort to free up cap space.

The Sharks have already started the process of freeing up cap space by trading Justin Braun to the Philadelphia Flyers earlier this week. There will likely be more trades to come before the market opens on July 1 since the Sharks have 20 pending free agents outside of Heed who still don't have contracts.

If San Jose needs to free up more room to sign their big-name UFAs, Heed could be sent to another team.

[RELATED: Jumbo says he'll return for another season, maybe more]

The verdict

Heed showed last season he can rise to the occasion when called upon and seems to fit in well with various other members of San Jose's blue line. If the Sharks are able to keep him, there's room for him to grow and continue helping the defense out. But with the Sharks likely not done making trades to gain space under the cap, Heed could have already played his last game in San Jose.

Sharks' Joe Thornton 'feels great', will return for 22nd NHL season

Sharks' Joe Thornton 'feels great', will return for 22nd NHL season

It's sounding like Joe Thornton will be back with the Sharks next season.

Thornton had previously expressed that if he were to return for a 22nd NHL season, it would indeed be with San Jose.

"I’m a Shark,” Thornton said at the Sharks' end-of-season availability. “There’s one team, and it’s here.”

At the NHL Awards media availability on Tuesday, Thornton eliminated whatever mystery remained and confirmed he would put off retirement for at least another year, per Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman.

Thornton went even further while clarifying his comments to TSN's Pierre LeBrun.

Thornton can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, but it's fully expected he and San Jose will come to an agreement on a contract -- a task made somewhat easier by the trade of defensemen Justin Braun on Tuesday morning, which provides some much-needed salary cap relief.

[RELATED: Sharks trade Braun to Flyers, acquire two draft picks]

"He can have all the time he needs to make whatever decision’s right for him," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said of Thornton back in May. "But we love him. I think I’ve been in this business a long time, I’ve never met anyone like him and we cherish the days we have him."

Thornton's announcement Tuesday would seem to indicate there are plenty of more days left to cherish.