Geek of the Week: Can Kevin Labanc Be A Breakout Star?

by Ben Burnett on October 13, 2019


One of the NHL’s biggest headlines in October has been the slow start by the cup contenders in San Jose. The Sharks went 1-4 to start the season, and were outscored 17-5 in their first four games. Given the existence of Martin Jones, those 17 goals against may not be shocking, but notching only 1.25 goals for per game was certainly well below expectations.

Letting Joe Pavelski walk in free agency was portended by long-term big-money extensions for Erik Karlsson and Evander Kane, and it’s had a big effect on the Sharks’ top lines. Captain Joe’s departure left a huge hole in the team’s forward group – Pavelski led the forwards in minutes per game the last few years.

The assumption in preseason was that the major beneficiary of Pavelski’s minutes opening up would be Kevin Labanc. After playing third-line minutes last year, Labanc’s competition in camp this fall appeared to be a mix of unproven rookies, unexciting vets, with the only threat to top-line deployment seeming to be possible switch-winger Timo Meier.

With what was presumed to be an upswing in time on ice, vastly improved linemates, and a one year $1 million prove-it deal signed in the offseason, many considered 2019-20 to be Kevin Labanc SZN. But through five games we haven’t seen it yet. Labanc has one goal and zero assists so far. Were expectations for Labanc simply too high this season? Or does he still stand a chance of breaking out and turning into a legit must-own in fantasy hockey leagues?

The Opportunity

The time on ice opened up by Pavelski’s departure seemed like it would make a huge difference for Labanc, who played under 15 minutes per game the last two years. Pavelski routinely played over 19 minutes per night in his last few campaigns with the Sharks, and someone needs to take those minutes, right? In theory, that same opportunity exists on the powerplay as well, where Pavelski played the bumper spot.

Through the first few games of the season, it seemed like that expectation would be borne out. Labanc topped 17, 21, and 20 minutes in the Sharks’ first three games, averaging nearly five minutes per night on a powerplay that included Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, and a combination of Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, and Timo Meier. Through five games, Labanc is averaging 18:29 minutes per game.

However, a re-introduction of old blood in San Jose could potentially spoil some of those gains. Since game three, the Sharks have welcomed Evander Kane back into their lineup after a suspension to start October, and long-time fan-favorite Patrick Marleau rejoined the team after a two-year stint in Toronto.

While Kane’s return doesn’t seem to have affected Labanc (the two played on the top powerplay together in both games since Kane’s return), the Marleau signing may prove to be a fly in the ointment. Within 24 hours of the signing announcement, practice reports showed Sharks coach Pete DeBoer was icing a top line of Couture, Meier, and Marleau. The 40-year-old winger responded with a two-goal outing in his first game back.

With Kane and Marleau back in the lineup, Labanc played his two lowest time on ice games of the young season. Not stepping in to Pavelski’s role at even strength will put a cap on Labanc’s ceiling, but given that he’s averaging four and a half extra minutes per night to start 2019-20 there’s still lots of room for improvement this year.

Performance in 2019-20

Given the Sharks’ dismal start to the season, Labanc’s slow start is unsurprising. In such a small sample size, it’s more important to look under the hood and see how he reached those numbers. What we look for is whether or not the 23-year-old right wing has been shooting, producing scoring chances, and getting enough deployment to be effective long-term.

First of all, we need to know whether Labanc is actually getting enough minutes to be successful and worth a spot on your fantasy roster. With his 18:29 average time on ice through five games, Labanc would have ranked in the top 70 forwards in all situations time on ice. That’s enough to firmly call him a top-line winger by ice time so far in 2019-20. It’s a little more difficult to project his time on ice on the power play, where in-game refereeing has such a massive swing on total power-play time on ice over a small sample size. But so far, with a fully healthy team, Labanc has played 64% of the power-play time. If that number can stay north of 50% all season, owners should remain happy. While he may not have the greatest linemates at even strength all season, he’s getting plenty of time on ice to put points on the board.

My number one concern when it came to Labanc was how low his shooting rates were in previous seasons. Last year, he notched 130 shots on goal playing on the Sharks’ third line. While many were calling for his breakout early, my hesitation in buying in was whether or not he’d be able to raise that shooting rate enough to turn into a 25- or 30-goal scorer. The early returns have been good so far.
 

Season:

ES Shots/60

Team Rank

PP Shots/60

Team Rank

2018-19

6.27

12

9.42

10

2019-20

8.52

7

20.64

6


Given the usual caveat that five game samples provide lots of noise, there are several positives here. Not only has Labanc improved his shot-share within his team, but he’s out-shooting his typical averages. It’s been especially nice to see Labanc shooting on the power play so much. Even if he sees a further down-tick in TOI with Marleau back, the uptick in shot rate should help make up for that. At the moment, Labanc is on pace for 279 shots this year. That would blow his previous career high (156) out of the water. Even if that number regresses a bit, he should finish 2019-20 outpacing his previous norms.

Given the lack of assists Labanc has on the year, it’s reasonable to worry about whether or not he and his linemates are producing offensive chances. Last year at even strength, Labanc was on the ice for 29.26 scoring chances for, and 11.78 high danger scoring chances for per 60 minutes. This year, in a much smaller sample, Labanc has seen a decrease in those numbers (28.11 SCF, and 8.52 HDCF). It’s too early to draw conclusions on those numbers, and a slight downturn in a small sample isn’t necessarily damning. But what is particularly unsustainable is the Sharks’ shooting percentage when Labanc is on the ice at even strength.

The Sharks are shooting just over 6 percent in those minutes. Given Labanc’s IPP (the percentage of goals scored while a player is on the ice where they are credited for a point) is typically around 60 percent (0 percent this year), and his linemates typically score on around 9 percent of their shots, we can take the Sharks’ total shots for with Labanc on the ice (33), multiply it by his usual on-ice shooting percentage (9 percent), and then multiply that by his typical IPP (60 percent) to get an expected regressed point total. If Labanc’s season had started the way his percentages typically go, we could expect him to have two points to go along with the power-play goal he’s already scored, for three points in five games.

Advice

While three points in five games isn’t out of this world production, many of the fantasy owners who have dropped Labanc after four pointless games may have held off if he was wasn’t so unlucky to start the year. My recommendation is to hold Labanc if you’ve still got him, and pick him up if you’ve been considering it in 12 or 14 team leagues. There are still some unknowns (e.g. how the addition of Marleau will affect his deployment), but there’s plenty of room for the breakout production that many predicted in the off-season. Especially if he can play the majority of his minutes with Couture, Hertl, Meier, or Kane.

Keep an eye on Labanc’s deployment moving forward. I’d peg him for a 55+ point pace rest of the season, which offers plenty of value in deeper leagues. If he can maintain his power-play deployment, his ceiling can be much higher.

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