Checking in on Joseph LaBate

Canucks prospect Joseph LaBate has gotten off to a slow start this season at the University of Wisconsin. He is seeing more ice time compared to last year, but the Badgers have struggled out of the gate.

To find out why, I called on friend of the blog Andy Johnson, the editor of Wisconsin sports blog Bucky’s 5th Quarter.

If you don’t know much about LaBate, he has been profiled a few times at the Canucks Army. He checked in at number eight on our summer countdown of the top 20 Canucks prospects.

LaBate has the skill set and the frame to develop into a top-six forward at the NHL level. Two things are holding him back at the moment – quickness and strength. LaBate is a great skater once he gets going, but like many young prospects, he needs to improve on his first few steps. He also needs to bulk up a bit, which isn’t uncommon when you’re a lanky 19 year old. Both issues, thankfully, are quite correctable. What LaBate possesses on the other hand, can’t be taught: height (6-4) and hockey sense.

Angus: Andy, You told me that LaBate is struggling this year. What is the main reason for that?

Wisconsin has been playing a little different forecheck this season, going from a traditional 1-2-2, to a 1-1-3. The way it’s supposed to be run in Mike Eaves system is basically like an aggressive trap (yeah, everyone hates the trap). First two forwards enter the zone and try to force the play up the wall to create a turnover. Problem so far has been that all of the players, not just LaBate, have struggled with it. Wisconsin is averaging just over 1.8 goals per game which is anemic at this level. Guys simply aren’t comfortable playing the roles they’ve been asked of them yet, and I think that’s part of the reason for LaBate’s slow start.

Where has he been playing in the lineup?

Wisconsin has seven guys that I consider "top six" type offensive guys who will be counted to put points up on the board this season, and LaBate is certainly one of those seven. With Nic Kerdiles not eligible to play, LaBate has been playing on Wisconsin’s top line that is centered by Mark Zengerle. That’s one of the reasons why LaBate’s early season production is disappointing, because he’s playing with two of the most offensively gifted players on the team. Through five games, LaBate had just six shots on goal. That’s simply not good enough for a top line player who is also getting time on the second power play and is counted on to score goals.

Does he look any different than last year?

In covering the team I’m not focusing on any one individual player, unless I have a reason to. At this point, through just a handful of games it’s too early to tell on that front. I would like to see him start using his frame a little bit more to power to the net and make things happen in the offensive zone.

Will his game change at all with the injury to Zengerle?

I don’t think his game will change per se, but his minutes might. He was a healthy scratch on Saturday night and it’s all but a certainty that he’ll be in the lineup for sure as long as Zengerle is out. Last year Eaves experimented with LaBate at center a little bit but I don’t see that happening again. Wisconsin needs to score, and in order to do so they are going to need production out of LaBate. I’d expect to see the coaches get creative with line combinations to jump start his game. I’m also interested to see how they adjust the power-play with Zengerle out. LaBate could see minutes increase in that role as well.

What was the reason for his healthy scratch over the weekend?

It was a wakeup call, as simple as that. The coaches know that Joseph is one of the most important players on the team and that’s why they made the move to sit him down for a game. They have done the same with other talented players in the past, including Brendan Smith. Sometimes this game can be frustrating for young players, and I think watching a game in a suit from the press box can be used as a motivational tool not only for LaBate, but for the rest of the guys on the team. Other kids look at it like ‘hey, if they’ll sit this kid, how safe is my spot in the lineup?’

LaBate is going to be fine, and like I said the coaching staff thinks that he’s going to be a big piece of the puzzle this season. Wisconsin’s next series is at Minnesota, so there’s no question that Joseph is going to be fired up not only to play the rival Gophers, but playing in his hometown in front of his family will be added motivation.

Here is a look at LaBate from a recent game for Wisconsin: 

It isn’t all roses for LaBate right now, but prospects (especially of the big forward variety) tend to experience peaks and valleys as they develop as hockey players. Both the Canucks and the Badgers still regard LaBate quite highly, and he will be handled with patience. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him play the full four years at college, as he doesn’t appear to be ready to make the jump to the pro ranks right now (although that could change in a year).

More from the CanucksArmy on LaBate: