Joseph Labate Learning Quickly

If you have read my articles here at the Canucks Army for the past few months, you are aware of Vancouver’s collection of unheralded college prospects. Back in October, I profiled 2011 draft pick Joseph LaBate, even going so far as to compare him to David Backes. LaBate’s freshman season at the University of Wisconsin has gone according to plan – he is playing a top six role for a strong college program, and his regular season recently wrapped up. He finished with five goals and 20 points in 34 games for the Badgers.

The University of Wisconsin has churned out some impressive NHL talent in recent years. The notables include Derek Stepan (Rangers), Craig Smith (Predators), Brendan Smith (Red Wings), Jamie McBain (Hurricanes), Jake Gardiner (Leafs), Ryan McDonagh (Rangers), and they currently have the best skater in college hockey in puck-moving defenseman Justin Schultz (Ducks). Coach Mike Eaves has done a great job preparing these guys for the NHL, as the majority of them have spent little to no time in the AHL. Leading up to the 2011 draft, LaBate was pegged as a bit of a project pick (as most 6’4” 18-year-old skaters are), but his overall improvement this season is extremely encouraging.

I have seen bits and pieces of his games on television and the internet, but to get a more thorough picture of how his game has developed, I decided to reach out to Chuck Schwartz from Bucky’s Fifth Quarter, a blog covering all things related to University of Wisconsin sports.

Give Chuck a follow on Twitter (@UWChuckSchwartz).

Angus: How has Joseph’s season gone so far? Is his play improving?

Schwartz: Joseph has had a fine freshman season. He finished the regular season (34 games) with 20 points, which is around where most had projected him this season. I checked back on my projections and had him at 18 points through 37 games before the regular season started.

He’s clearly improved. While he was impressive out of the gates, he’s started to play at both ends of the ice which can be demanding in the Mike Eaves system. He’s played big time minutes at times and has hung in there in arguably the best college hockey league in the country.

What role does he currently fill with the Badgers? Where do you see him playing next year and beyond?

He’s been shuffled around recently as the coaching staff looks for balance throughout the top few lines. At times he’s played on the top unit with Mark Zengerle, and at other times he’s played on some lower lines but he’s widely considered a top six forward on this roster. He’s also on the second power play where he is the big body out front screening the goaltender.

Next season he’ll fill much of the same role. Wisconsin returns everyone up front, and LaBate will be looked upon to add to his game in all areas. He’s played both center and left wing this season, but it’s clear that his future is on the wing. He will play in that role on one of the top two lines for the Badgers as his career progresses.

What current or former NHLer (or Badger) does he compare to in terms of playing style?

I’m atrocious at player comparisons, so I’m not even going to make an attempt. In my view it isn’t fair to pigeonhole LaBate, I just don’t want to contribute to the development of an unfair reputation, good or bad. I will say that he has a projectable NHL frame and the requisite skill set to play in the league.

How far away is he from the NHL? Does he need the full four years at college?

It’s always hard to answer this type of question as players respond to strength and conditioning programs differently. There are a few things holding LaBate back right now, and it starts with his strength. He’s got that frame that I mentioned, but he needs to fill it out with muscle. Wisconsin has one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the country with Jim Snider, and it would be best to see him in that program for at least three seasons.

I don’t know if he needs all four seasons at Wisconsin, but I don’t think he’ll be in the NHL until after his four years of eligibility expire. Players in his mold tend to take a little bit longer to develop as they are growing into their bodies. I think he’s about three years away from making the NHL. I’ll take a guess and say he’ll stay at Wisconsin through his junior season (year three), turn pro and spend a year in the AHL before cracking the Canucks lineup.

Does he have NHL upside? What type of player would he become at the high end? How about the low end?

No question he has NHL upside. LaBate has scouts drooling when they look at the skill set that he has given his size. At the high end, he’s a second line left winger in the NHL. I think he’s got the package to play in the top six eventually down the road, although he’s going to have to improve his overall speed. On the low end, I think he can be a dime-a-dozen forward who is up and down between the NHL and AHL.

I really like the future of this kid.

Any other thoughts on LaBate?

I was talking with a scout this weekend in Minnesota who noted that he feels like LaBate is going to be a force in the WCHA. To be fair, he’s stuck on a pretty mediocre team this season, so he’s not getting the level of publicity that some of the other freshmen on better teams are. LaBate is going to be a dominant player at Wisconsin very soon.

The thing that should be exciting for Canucks fans is to take a look at the players that Mike Eaves is producing at Wisconsin. The Badgers are consistently in the two or three college programs in terms of numbers of alumni playing in the NHL. Wisconsin has had 21 former players play in the NHL this season. They are basically their own farm club to the NHL. Eaves has played and coached in the league and there isn’t a college coach in the country that prepares his players for the rigors of professional hockey like Eaves does.