While the date of April 28, 2021, may feel random and irrelevant, it was paramount in discussing how to maximize Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc as the offensively gifted wingers they are.
That is because, in April 28’s game between the San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes, head coach Bob Boughner elected to utilize Meier and Labanc in roles that absolutely do not fit their ability. Labanc found himself as the third-line right wing alongside Alex True and Noah Gregor, while Meier joined Patrick Marleau and Joachim Blichfeld on the fourth line.
While that decision was made near the end of the season, remaining seven points from a playoff spot with eight games left, it still made little sense. Meier and Labanc had little hope of producing offense at the end of the season, given their linemates and subsequently struggled.
So, that’s two seasons where Labanc and Meier have fallen under expectations given to them. Both have been expected to be integral parts of San Jose’s top six, with Labanc as a playmaker and Meier as a goal-scorer.
Both forwards were given deals typically longer than traditional bridge contracts but far from large paydays given to veterans. However, the player’s respective contracts seem like decent overpayments for their current contracts. Is there any hope for these youngsters, or is this another example of Doug Wilson overpaying his core players?
Profiling Labanc: Even Strength Success
Labanc finished last season with 12 goals and 28 points in 55 games. Just over .5 points-per-game is not the scoring rate expected for a 25-year-old in their first year of a four-year extension costing $4.75 million annually. Worth noting, in 2019-20, the winger took a wildly inexpensive contract. If you account for his previous team-friendly contract, it is as if Wilson extended Labanc to a five-year contract costing $4 million annually.
What I, and many in the comment section, find perplexing was after Labanc’s 2019-20 campaign of 14 goals and 33 points, he did not warrant his large raise. He, his agent, and Wilson likely decided on his current contract somewhat before 2019-20.
Despite public perception, Labanc is not the horrid defensive player he is made out to be. He was not sheltered in where his zone starts began while maintaining a slightly positive impact on shot attempts (Corsi) and expected goals at even strength for the Sharks this season. This perception aligns with JFresh Hockey’s model, showing Labanc to be subpar defensively, to say the least.
Regardless, Labanc is still somewhat young and improved in 2020-21. His even-strength numbers especially make him stand out. The Brooklyn-native scored 1.97 5-on-5 points per 60-minutes. On the Sharks, that rate falls under just Tomas Hertl and Evander Kane for third. For reference, Labanc’s rate of 5-on-5 scoring was better than notable forwards like Nicklas Backstrom, Kevin Fiala, David Perron, and Ondrej Palat.
So, if Labanc’s even-strength ability is so good, why does he not show on the scoresheet as frequently as the quality forwards listed above? This is largely due to his and the team’s severely inefficient power play. The Sharks had the third-worst power play in 2020-21and ninth-worst in 2019-20.
Labanc headlined in the infamous 2019 Game 7 comeback against the Vegas Golden Knights with a goal and three assists during the five-minute major power play. However, he had more power-play points in those five minutes than he totaled in the entire 2020-21 season. In fact, per MoneyPuck, the Sharks’ power play was 19% more effective at 5-on-4 without Labanc.
The 2014 sixth-round pick scores at even strength with the rate of a legit top-six forward. However, since 2018-19 he has never recaptured his power-play success, and his point totals have plummeted since.
Profiling Meier: Unlucky and Underperforming
While I can defend Labanc’s perceived underperformance with his clear even-strength success, my perspective on Meier is less positive. Meier, in his second of a four-year extension, has a $6 million salary-cap hit. He boasted 12 goals and 31 points in 54 games in 2020-21. In a normal 82-game schedule, his rate would have seen him finish with his first sub-20 goal season since his first full season in 2017-18.
To be fair to Meier, his 2019-20 season was pretty quality. He led the team with 49 points and finished second behind Kane with 22 goals. However, that makes his lacking 2020-21 season more worrisome because why would a player regress at 24 years old?
Optimistically, we could say Meier fell victim to a large shooting slump, which is a pretty fair statement. He scored on just 7.7% of shots, well below his average of 11% over the last three seasons. It’s not as if the Swiss winger struggled to find opportunity, he was tied-third on the Sharks in expected goals/60 at 5-on-5.
Meier’s rate of 5-on-5 scoring was also decent. He was fifth on the team, just under Rudolfs Balcers and just above John Leonard. Forwards with similar rates, this past season included Andrei Svechnikov, Pavel Zacha, Alex Iafallo, and Alex Kerfoot.
Compared to Labanc, Meier was much more sheltered by the coaching staff, benefitting from fewer defensive zone starts. He did, however, maintain a similar, slightly above average impact on controlling scoring chances and shot attempts in that role. However, JFresh’s model illustrates his impact on even-strength defense to be woeful.
Meier can return to being a dominant goal scorer. In 2018-19, he had 30 goals and 64 points in 78 games. If his finishing ability returns to the level he posted in the 2018-19 season, Meier can be a consistent 30-goal scorer for years to come.
Unlocking Meier and Labanc’s Potential
Unfortunately, the Sharks only possess a single quality and effective center, Hertl. Logan Couture, possibly due to injury, finished last year poorly compared to the rest of his lengthy career, becoming not too effective in his defensive role and even less effective at producing offense.
However, the Sharks added a quality middle-six center in Nick Bonino. His 5-on-5 scoring rate would currently rank fourth on the team and significantly improve upon Couture’s. Bonino also has quality defensive metrics. One of Couture and Bonino will be used in a primarily offensive role, and one in a defensive role. Regardless, the Sharks’ wingers will benefit from the impact of this veteran forward signing.
Meier should be stapled to Hertl. Last season the line of Meier, Hertl, and Balcers played 157 minutes together and controlled 68% of expected goals together. If Meier’s shooting percentage rebounds, that line would be electric together.
If Hertl’s wingers are already set, Labanc would need to find another center. And given his current state, I will not include Kane in this projection. If Labanc slots next to Couture on the second line, I would presently see Leonard given a spot in the top-six, with Alexander Barabanov and Jonathon Dahlen as possible other options. Leonard maintained the highest rate of 5-on-5 scoring of those wingers, with great defensive metrics in his limited role.
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What Boughner and the coaching staff can absolutely not do, is limit Meier and Labanc’s roles. Despite perceived “poor seasons,” they significantly outperformed the likes of Patrick Marleau, Matt Nieto, and Ryan Donato, who were given looks in the top six over Meier and Labanc.
Last season, Wilson and Boughner consistently mentioned that the Sharks’ best players needed to be their best players. In other words, the club cannot succeed without its established and well-paid players performing well.
Using that logic, San Jose must place these two offensively gifted wingers in positions to succeed. Hertl centering one or both of these players would greatly help, and placing these players with quality linemates that complement their play styles will allow Meier and Labanc to have quality 2021-22 seasons.
Josh Frojelin is a young writer from the Bay Area. Josh grew up as a Sharks fan, being introduced to hockey by his father. He is now attached to his phone, waiting to hear the latest in hockey news. In addition to writing, Josh loves theatre, and his corgi Rocky.