Labanc embracing Sharks' greater expectations on new deal


Kevin Labanc bet on himself as a restricted free agent heading into the 2019-20 season, and it paid off Saturday.

Even if you didn't expect it to.

Labanc, 24, signed a four-year contract with San Jose, which reportedly is worth $18.9 million. The winger's deal, signed after he scored the second-fewest points of his career (33; 14 goals and 19 assists) has an annual cap hit of $4.725 million, according to The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun.

General manager Doug Wilson said Saturday the Sharks negotiated the deal with an eye to Labanc's future.

"This is forecasting Kevin Labanc to be a 60-point scorer for the next four years," Wilson said of the contract. "That's really what the market is. That's what the value is, and we know that he's not only done it, but we think he's gonna fit so well with how we want to play, how we want to attack on the power play. And after having long talks with [coach Bob Boughner], he's a big believer in Banker, as we are."

Labanc signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the Sharks last summer, when San Jose locked up winger Timo Meier (four years, $24 million) and defenseman Erik Karlsson (eight years, $92 million) to long-term contracts. He scored a career-high 56 points (17 goals, 39 assists) in 2018-19, and powered the Sharks' historic playoff comeback in Game 7 of their first-round series with the Vegas Golden Knights when he picked up four points on the same power play.

But Labanc struggled last season, and the Sharks finished dead-last in the Pacific Division and Western Conference. He accrued 33 points despite playing the most ice time in his career (16:50), posting a garish minus-33 in the process. The Sharks' goaltenders were porous when Labanc was on the ice 5-on-5 (.884 save percentage), but San Jose also allowed 2.4 expected goals per hour in Labanc's 5-on-5 minutes. 

Labanc said he knows he has to improve on both ends of the ice, and he believes he can.

"It wasn't my best year, but I know I'm a top-six forward in this league," Labanc said. "I know I can produce. I know I can be reliable defensively. I know it didn't show last season, but ... I feel more than ready to be putting in the minutes, and to be scoring goals and being good in my own end."

The offensive output wasn't there last season, but Labanc remained one of the Sharks' best puck-possession players. San Jose controlled 55.41 percent of the shot attempts, 54.15 percent of the expected goals and 53.07 percent of the high-danger chances in Labanc's 5-on-5 minutes last season. He ranked no worse than seventh on the Sharks in any of those categories, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Labanc also has become a key part of the Sharks' power play. Over the last three seasons, only Brent Burns (72) and Logan Couture (48) have more power-play points with San Jose than Labanc (46). Of the 253 players around the league who played at least 300 5-on-4 minutes during that time, Labanc is 40th in primary-assist rate (2.11 per hour).

Wilson said the Sharks will be a more offense-minded team under Boughner and new associate coach Rocky Thompson, and their strategy on the puck will play to Labanc's strengths.

"His skill set seeing the ice and making plays is incredible," Wilson said of Labanc. "Not just the power-play performance in the Vegas game, but you watch the plays that he can see ... and make, and then you tie it in with opening up our style of play with the activation of [defensemen Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns]. You're gonna see us play a more attacking style that fits right into his wheelhouse."

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Labanc is yet to cross the 60-point threshold for a season that Wilson repeatedly referred to, but the GM said the winger is putting in the work to do so. Along with Couture and Tomas Hertl, Labanc said he has been skating and working out in San Jose.

Now entering his fifth NHL season, Labanc is aware his new deal brings greater responsibility along with it. The Sharks expect him to live up to it, and Labanc said he expects the same of himself.

"I look at pressure as a privilege," Labanc said. "You work your whole life to get to this point in your career, and the best way to handle pressure is by attacking it, and that's what I plan on doing this season. That's with the team, I think, as a whole (how) we're gonna attack the season, and I'm excited for it."

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