SAN JOSE – Despite the fact that they are the defending Western Conference champions, the Sharks are in a bit of a transitional phase with their roster nearly halfway through the season.
And really, that was the plan all along. After a long stretch of having a system devoid of top end prospects (due in part to trading picks away to load up for playoff runs, and not having high first round choices), the Sharks put an emphasis on stockpiling draft picks about four years ago, with the obvious hope that some of those prospects would develop into full time NHL players.
Kevin Labanc, 21, and Timo Meier, 20, both find themselves as key contributors on a team that is in first place in the Pacific Division. While it's no guarantee they'll remain with the Sharks for the rest of the season, their play so far suggests they will be. Labanc has four goals in his last nine games, and has earned his way onto the second power play unit. Meier, the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft, is also adjusting nicely to the pro game after scoring a goal in his NHL debut on Dec. 16, and more ice time is likely coming his way.
Joe Thornton is impressed by both kids.
"[Labanc], just the ability to get in position to score – I think he's a very, very smart hockey player. He wants to score every night, which is fun to see as an older player," Thornton said. "Timo, just his speed stands out, and how strong he is. Both guys are playing huge roles on our team right now."
Labanc is a bit further along than Meier, playing 22 games to Meier's five. He's gaining chemistry on the second line with center Logan Couture, and that's where he'll be on Friday when the Sharks resume their schedule against Philadelphia.
The leading scorer in all of junior hockey last season with 127 points in 65 games, Labanc knows he's still in the proving stage to coach Pete DeBoer. Still, he at least now knows he has the ability to play, and produce, in the best league in the world.
"Yeah, absolutely. Definitely getting more comfortable, more confident every game," said Labanc, before adding that getting used to playing so many games is the biggest hurdle. "It's a lot on the body. … You've just got to really take care of your body on and off the ice."
Despite just one point in five games, Meier is having an impact with 19 shots. He remains on the third line with Chris Tierney and Joonas Donskoi, and he, too, will remain in against the Flyers.
"I think [I've] had my chances," Meier said. "In the NHL it's not easy to score, but I feel like I'm getting in front of the net and getting my shots. Now it's just putting them in and taking another step to bury those pucks. It's been a lot of fun."
DeBoer has liked what he's seen from Meier, and hinted at a bigger role for the Swiss native in the near future.
"I like his game," DeBoer said. "It's on me to try and find him some more ice. I think he's starting to earn [it]. He's looking dangerous out there, and I think he's knocking on the door to do some real good things here."
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It's been years since the Sharks had such a young player make a real impact. You have to go back to 19-year-old Tomas Hertl's rookie season of 2013-14 when he busted out with 15 goals in his first 35 career games before a right knee injury in December derailed his campaign.
The NHL, though, is trending younger. It's vital to find young players that can play sooner than later, and that's probably even truer for the Sharks, who rely on older veterans more than any other contending club.
Thornton recognizes that.
"It's huge. It pushes everybody every day," he said. "That's probably the biggest thing. Plus, their vibe, their youth – it's exciting for us older guys. Everything is positive right now."
It also leaves DeBoer with the welcome challenge of deciding who to play and who to sit. That's already led to him scratching regulars like Joel Ward, Joonas Donskoi, Tommy Wingels and Matt Nieto. Some of that is message-sending to guys that might not be playing well, but it's mostly just a case of numbers.
The Sharks have a glut of forwards with Labanc and Meier on the scene, and that's despite Hertl remaining out with a knee injury.
"You've got to show up every night, or there's guys going to be playing in your spot," Thornton said. "That's what keeps this team really motivated, too, is you're never safe."
Despite that internal competition, though, both Labanc and Meier said that the Sharks' room has been a welcoming one. Although the group features at least one surefire Hall of Famer in Thornton, several Olympic medalists and players that regularly compete in international tournaments – as well as being the defending Western Conference champions – if you're in the NHL dressing room, you're treated like an NHL player.
"They just let you come in with open arms," Labanc said.
Thornton said: "We've always done a good job here of bringing in guys and making guys feel comfortable. You could ask both guys, they feel real comfortable in his locker room. It's a testament to the quality of guys we've got in this room."
It leads to good things on the ice, too.
"The older guys have helped us a lot," Meier said. "I think moving forward we really want to look up to those guys, and take stuff out of their games and put it in ours."