OTTAWA — Timo Meier’s resurgence has been headline news for the San Jose Sharks – and deservedly so.
Meier has been among NHL leaders in shots and shot attempts this season – he’s a volume shooter who appears locked and loaded on every shift so far.
But in the Sharks’ hard-fought 2-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators, another young veteran forward showed why he might be just as important as Meier to the team’s playoff drive.
“[Kevin Labanc] out there with an empty net. It was a reward for the game he had, I thought that was his best game five-on-five he’s played,” San Jose Sharks head coach Bob Boughner shared. “You want to reward guys that are playing hard and playing the right way and buying in.”
I say young veteran because Labanc is 26, he’s already been in the league for six years. Meier is 25, also in his sixth season.
It’s about time that both step up and lead the San Jose Sharks to the promised land – and they’ve been doing it so far in this 3-0-0 start. San Jose is 3-0-0 for the first time since 2015-16.
With Labanc, obviously, the Alex Ovechkin-like one-timer goals on the power play are what grab your attention.
Labanc deposits a goal on the power play 👏 pic.twitter.com/8sjYsoyzem
— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) October 22, 2021
“We call him Kevin Ovechkin in the room,” Logan Couture said, smiling.
But go back to what Boughner said: Labanc didn’t earn a key defensive responsibility with minutes left in a one-goal game because he ripped a power play goal.
“I think it’s been gradual. Last couple years, he’s played harder defensively. He’s stronger on the stick. He makes smarter decisions,” Couture offered. “You got to learn to play defense at the pro level and I think he’s put in a lot of hard work. He’s watched a lot of tape. He’s really worked on his defensive game. He’s earned the opportunities that he’s getting.”
But of course, Labanc is never going to make an NHL career as a pure checker – and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s his offensive capabilities, especially at five-on-five, that can make him a critical cog for the San Jose Sharks’ success.
I count at least three times on this shift that Labanc (62) creates a better offensive situation for his teammate by beating the Sen on him. That includes a pretty stickhandle that slips Drake Batherson (19) along the wall, along with a shake-and-bake in the corner that leaves Chris Tierney (71) a step behind. Labanc then finds Erik Karlsson (65) up high for a chance.
So why can Labanc be so important in the big picture?
At the moment, as the San Jose Sharks are currently constructed, Labanc is the main source of offense on his line, centered by Nick Bonino and flanked by Matt Nieto. That’s critical: Bonino is supposed to get a heavy dose of defensive zone starts, and you need somebody to help get the puck out of the zone. You can’t win if you’re continually hemmed in on your DZ starts.
“I liked that line because you got Bonesy, great two-way player, you got Niets who is a good two-way player, and it almost frees Kevin up a little bit,” Boughner shared. “Kevin’s playing great two-way hockey, especially tonight. But it just provides a little more structure to align for Kevin. It forces him to play it a little more north.”
A great defensive line that’s able to regularly tilt the ice offensively is one of the most valuable things in hockey. If the Labanc-Bonino third line duo – I anticipate Nieto will eventually move back to the fourth line – prove to be able to spend more time in the offensive zone at five-on-five than on the defensive side of things by the end of the season, that suggests the Sharks have playoff-caliber forward depth.
Labanc, honestly, is probably too talented for a third line – so if he stays on it, that probably means San Jose has significantly improved its depth up front.
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