The pun is right there, but unfortunately, San Jose’s most recent signing did not go ‘straight to the bank.’ Kevin Labanc, the talented young right winger, instead inked a one-year contract extension for just $1 million – even though he tallied 56 points this past season.
Playing largely with Joe Thornton and Marcus Sorensen, Labanc had his best NHL campaign to date, but in terms of cashing in, the 23-year-old has chosen to bet on himself in the short-term.
“I believe my best hockey is ahead of me,” Labanc said. “There’s a lot of opportunity up there and last year was a good stepping stone. I want to play more minutes, be one of the top guys and maybe even get a couple of penalty-kill shifts in.”
For the Sharks, this deal is a huge win. San Jose has only a bit of wiggle room under the cap and thanks to Labanc, there is space to breathe.
“We appreciate ‘Banker’ understanding and stepping up,” said GM Doug Wilson. “We think it’s an important contract for us, but also a great opportunity for him.”
An obvious use of that cap space? Re-signing Thornton to another one-year deal.
If you’re a Sharks fan, this is fantastic news: Labanc clearly believes in the culture of the team and was willing to take millions less to help the cap situation. If you’re an agent with a similar RFA client heading into negotiations, you're not so psyched. While all contract talks are different due to individual and team situations, another franchise can now use Labanc's deal to try and squeeze one of their own players (and oh yes, they will try – it's a business, after all).
What it does for Labanc is set him up for a big contract next summer, assuming he continues his ascent in the NHL. He’ll still be a restricted free agent, but he will now have arbitration rights, changing the leverage a bit. Should he put up say, 65 or 70 points next season, he can cash in on a bigger long-term deal.
In the meantime, San Jose gets an impressive young player on the cheap and with forwards such as Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi moving on to new teams this summer, the Sharks have some plum roles up for grabs. While Labanc is already ingrained in the lineup, there is a raft of youngsters who could join him full-time: Dylan Gambrell, Joachim Blichfield, Noah Gregor, Danil Yurtaiken, Sasha Chmelevski and Ivan Chekhovich were among the candidates mentioned by Wilson, who compared the situation to the Sharks’ roster from several years ago.
Back then, it was kids like Labanc, Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl getting their feet wet and obviously that cohort worked out.
For a team that has missed the playoffs just once in the past 15 seasons, it’s clear that a plan of succession has been key to San Jose’s consistency. The Sharks have done well drafting largely in the mid- to late first round, then supplementing through trades for big names such as Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Evander Kane (and going even further back, Thornton).
Labanc himself was a sixth-round find and he has matured into an excellent weapon.
"He's always had a dangerous shot but really stepped into a playmaking role for us last season and improved his 200-foot game as well,” Wilson said. “We think he still has even more potential to tap into and we're excited to see what he can do with an elevated role with this talented group."
If Labanc reaches that potential, the Sharks will have another high-end scorer on their hands and won’t mind paying the tab when it comes up again next summer. If Labanc simply treads water, San Jose still got a huge bargain from a team-first player. Sounds pretty win-win for Wilson and crew.