Barracuda’s Labanc Determined to Rejoin Sharks as a ‘Harder and Heavier’ Player
SAN JOSE — Kevin Labanc’s marching orders from Sharks coach Peter DeBoer are clear: develop a “heavier, harder” game in the AHL.
After spending 40 games in the NHL with the Sharks, Labanc returned to the Barracuda (25-11-4) on Monday, where he first made a name for himself during the opening month of the season, exploding onto the scene by notching 10 points in six games.
Naturally, Labanc is disappointed to be back in the minors after getting a healthy taste of NHL action, but the 21-year-old wingman is determined to rejoin the Sharks for the stretch run and he knows exactly what he needs to do to make it happen.
“Being a little bit harder and heavier in the other end,” Labanc said, describing his to-do list from the Sharks braintrust prior to his reassignment this week. “I need to be harder on the puck and play a little bit more of a defensive game, and just do the little things right.”
Labanc reached the NHL by flashing the offensive talent that allowed him to win a scoring title in the Ontario Hockey League with the Barrie Colts last season with the Barracuda early in the year. He carried that momentum into his Nov. 7 recall with the Sharks.
The Brooklyn native quickly landed a spot alongside alternate captain Logan Couture on Team Teal’s second line by potting seven goals and collecting six points in his first 24 games with the club as it struggled to generate offense over the first three months of the season.
But Labanc’s offensive production dried up in the month of January as the rest of the team started finding the net. Prior to his reassignment, he was riding a 16-game goalless drought in which he’d collected just four points. As a result, the warts in his game became more glaring.
Eventually, DeBoer moved Labanc off the second line, where Couture often compensated for the flaws in his defensive game.
“They probably turned the other eye a little bit. I know I would if a guy’s scoring like that. If he has a couple breakdowns, you probably let it slide,” Barracuda coach Roy Sommer said. “But when you stop scoring, and you’re a minus player, that doesn’t go over too well.”
“He needs to play 200 feet. You get him inside the blue line, he’s a magician even up at the NHL level. In his own end, he needs to know the coverages and who to pick up and who not to pick up. Getting pucks in and out, the detailed part of the defensive game. The offensive game, he’s got that.”
Labanc acknowledged that after the initial excitement of training camp, his NHL debut and playing with the Sharks faded, he hit a wall as the calendar turned to 2017.
“It’s a long season up there,” he said. “I definitely did hit a bit of a wall, but that can’t let you down. You’ve got to come to work every day and battle. Everyone hits a wall and it’s just how you respond to it.”
Last year, Chris Tierney received a midseason jolt after spending two games with the Barracuda in early January, collecting three points. After that, he returned to the NHL where he picked up eight points in 10 games before playing a key role during the Sharks run to the Stanley Cup Final as the team’s third line center.
The Sharks are hoping this week’s reassignment triggers a similar response from Labanc.
“He came down and he got his mojo going,” Sommer said, referring to Tierney. “That’s what we’re all about down here. For guys, when they don’t have their game going, you can come down here and get yourself back into it.”
“For him (Labanc), it’s time to readjust the way he’s playing.”
Although Labanc is with the Barracuda to develop his defensive game, make no mistake, the organization is expecting him to be an offensive catalyst, too.
On Wednesday, Sommer placed Labanc on a line with Danny O’Regan and Nikolay Goldobin, a trio he is expecting big things from.
“He needs to be one of the best players on the ice. Average isn’t going to be good enough for him,” Sommer said. “He’s played NHL games and he produced up there, so don’t fall back on your laurels.”
At this point, Labanc isn’t being shy about what he wants to achieve with the Barracuda: be a top scorer, help the team stay in first place in the Pacific Division and rejoin the Sharks before the playoffs kick off in April.
With that being said, he knows that he won’t be able to punch his ticket back to the NHL if his focus isn’t with the Barracuda.
“You’ve got to stay in the moment,” Labanc said. “You can never be too high, you can never be too low in this business. You want to have that happy medium and keep lifting yourself to the next level, and play every game like it’s an NHL game.”