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San Jose Sharks

An Argument for Kevin Labanc’s New Contract

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Kevin Labanc, San Jose Sharks
Credit: NHL

I was wrong.

Two weeks ago, I mused about how much the San Jose Sharks actually valued Kevin Labanc, using Labanc’s record-setting low contract last summer and one-dimensional deployment against him.

How Much Do Sharks Value Kevin Labanc?

I guessed that San Jose would reveal their uncertainty about Labanc’s long-term place on the team by giving him a shorter contract — for about $3 million dollars per year — an agreement befitting an offensive specialist.

The Sharks turned around and rewarded Labanc with a four-year, $18.9 million contract after the winger’s least productive season in the last three years.

To say San Jose Sharks fans were befuddled is probably being kind. For a cap-strapped team that needs help everywhere, giving Labanc that much of their cap space was a genuine head-scratcher.

Fan ire was also focused on some of the things that Labanc and Doug Wilson said during their media availability.

Kevin Labanc: “I know I’m a top-six forward.”

Labanc: “I know I’m a top-six forward.”

Labanc, unprompted, stressed this twice during his Zoom call.

But fact is, he’s probably closer to right than wrong.

Consider this admittedly inexact measure: There are 31 teams; multiple that by six, you have 187 “top-six” forwards.

Labanc’s 33 points was 158th among all forwards this season, well within the top-187. Pro-rated over a full season, that’s 39 points.

This isn’t the ’80s — about 40 points is top-six caliber these days.

For what it’s worth, Labanc’s 56 points in 2018-19 was 76th among all forwards.

Anyway, as many have noted, points aren’t a great way to measure a player’s value. Let’s move beyond that.

The real question isn’t if Labanc is a top-six forward. The better question is: Is Labanc a good top-six forward?

Despite Labanc’s offensive gifts, his one-dimensional usage — power play only, no penalty kill — paints the portrait of a lower-end forward in a playoff-caliber top-six.

Labanc said the right things about expanding his game yesterday, offering, “I know I can be reliable defensively.”

We’ll see if the San Jose Sharks start to trust Labanc more. When they do that and if he flourishes with more defensive responsibilities, then we can talk about Labanc not just being a top-six forward, but a quality top-six forward.

An NHL scout spoke to this: “I think it’s a fair deal for both sides, but I’m not sure he’ll live up to it. Or he will from a production standpoint, but I don’t know, I just don’t love the player.”

Translation: Everybody knows that Labanc can create offense, but if he’s not doing that, is he still helping you?

Wilson: “This is forecasting Kevin Labanc to be a 60-point scorer for the next four years. That’s where the market is, that’s what the value is.”

I didn’t want to keep talking about points, but Wilson referred to it multiple times yesterday.

If — and it’s a big if — Wilson is right, and Labanc establishes himself as a perennial 60-point scorer, a $4.725 million dollar cap hit is more than appropriate.

First, let’s talk about the bar that Wilson has set for Labanc: Just 68 forwards met the 60-point mark in 2018-19, the last full season.

Second, let’s look at some comps: This season, 43 forwards scored 50-plus points on a contract signed during their RFA years — i.e. Mat Barzal, still on his entry-level contract, or John Tavares, who signed an elevated contract as a UFA, don’t count. 37 of these 43 forwards had a cap hit over $4.725 million.

I use 50 points as my mark here because pro-rated over an 82-game season, that’s about 60 points.

So in fact, if the San Jose Sharks’ forecast for Labanc is correct, he’ll be a bargain.

Even if Labanc tops out as a perennial 50-point scorer, it’s a fair contract.

This season, 66 forwards scored 43-plus points on a contract signed during their RFA years — I use 43 points here because over an 82-game schedule, that’s about 50 points — and 46 of these 66 forwards had a cap hit higher than $4.725 million.

It’s an aggressive forecast from Wilson, but that’s his job. I will say — in most cases, you’d rather have a GM paying for future production (Labanc, Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl) rather than past production (Erik Karlsson, Marc-Edouard Vlasic).

Labanc: “[This contract] has nothing to do with 2018-19.”

There was an expectation from many — and I was guilty of it too — that Labanc would sign a shorter-term deal at a lower AAV.

It just made sense for the cap-strapped San Jose Sharks, who still need help at many positions, especially up front. Labanc also didn’t help his cause with an underwhelming contract drive.

But industry belief, as far back as last summer, was that the Sharks had a “deal in the drawer” with Labanc in exchange for the below-market one-year, $1 million dollar contract that he took last summer.

A source — outside the organization — told me recently: “There’s no chance he would have taken that deal last year without this deal in his back pocket.”

While Labanc flat-out denied that yesterday’s contract was a reward for 2018-19 and Wilson insisted this contract was “not a thanks” for the deal last summer…well, that won’t change what many insiders believe.

From Labanc’s perspective, how long should he be expected to take short-term contracts for the good of the team? At his age, once was more than enough.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter if Labanc or Wilson fess up in public — other players and agents will see that the San Jose Sharks are a team of their word. That does matter in the long run.

And of course, I’m sure there were some circumstances where San Jose would’ve gone against their word — as there should be — but an arguably unlucky season on a bad team shouldn’t qualify.

Wilson: “I wasn’t looking to go sign an older player from the outside to that type of [big contract] deal.”

Wilson, as expected, was evasive when asked if the Labanc contract would be his last large expenditure of this off-season.

Of course, the definition of a “big contract” is subject to debate.

Is Craig Smith at three years and $9.3 million big? Jesper Fast at three years and $6 million? Vladislav Namestinikov at two years and $4 million?

It’s a genuine question.

Even with Labanc signed and assuming pacts with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and a veteran bottom-pairing defenseman at near-minimums, the San Jose Sharks still have about $3 million or a little less of salary cap space.

So the off-season shouldn’t be over yet for the Sharks if they’re hoping to make the next post-season.

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