Rookie Logan Couture playing far beyond his age

By Andrew Knoll

Alex Ovechkin, Daniel Sedin, Corey Perry, Patrick Marleau, Ilya Kovalchuk, Steven Stamkos, and…Logan Couture?

The Sharks Calder Trophy candidate Couture may not be the most recognizable name on the list of the league leaders in game-winning goals, but it has actually taken recent surges by all those players to either catch or keep pace with the baby-faced Couture.

“He’s found a way to score goals and make plays and get things done out there. He’s scored a lot of big goals and been in on a lot of big plays for us," said his linemate Dany Heatley.

Couture has also joined Heatley, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle, and Ryan Clowe at the core of the Sharks franchise. All but Clowe have been selected as NHL All-Stars, but it has often been the rookie Couture that has provided a steadying presence among this group of established stars.

"He’s the most complete player that I’ve seen at that age," said the San Jose captain Thornton. "He penalty kills, he plays the power play, he plays all the important minutes and he’s been a stud for us all year long. He’s very very complete and by far the Calder winner so far this year."

Thornton has heaped praise on Couture at every turn this season, especially as some of the core players produced a bit inconsistently during the first half of the season.

"It’s great to hear. Any time you hear that from one of the star players in this league it definitely makes you feel good," Couture said.

During a March 24th road game against the Los Angeles Kings, Couture came up big once again. In a sequence symbolic of his contributions this season, Couture stabilized his team’s play during a critical and chaotic moment.

Just after the clock was reset from 11 seconds remaining to 14 seconds left, the Sharks won a faceoff while trailing by a goal with their goalie pulled. The puck imitated a SuperBall, bouncing off a half dozen sticks before Couture settled it and began a tic-tac-toe play that resulted in Marleau scoring to force overtime with exactly three seconds remaining.

“That’s Logan, he’s on top of the puck, his nose is always over it. He’s never turning away. For him to stay in the play was obviously very important,” Sharks Head Coach Todd McClellan said.

Couture’s breakout season has hardly stunned Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who was a teammate of Couture’s with London’s Junior Knights in their early adolescence.

"I’m not surprised at all. I knew from day one playing with him, I saw how much skill he had and how good he is," said the 2010 Norris Trophy nominee Doughty. "He’s really good at both ends of the ice–really good defensively and really good offensively. So, I knew it was a matter of time before he got his chance in San Jose here and I knew that when he did he was going to make the most of it."

Couture’s first opportunity actually arrived last season. He was one game played in 2009-10 of not being considered a rookie this season as he participated in 25 regular-season contests for the Sharks last season. He registered nine points in those 25 games and four more in 15 playoff appearances last year. While it may not thrill his fellow Calder candidates, Couture appreciated the experience immensely.

"It helped a lot, I kind of got to know the league a little bit and then the playoff games helped to get me to train this summer to get ready for this upcoming year," Couture said.

He entered a February 8th game at Washington tied for the league lead in game-winning goals with the Capitals’ Ovechkin. Couture broke a scoreless tie with 8:05 left in the third period to surpass Ovechkin for the league lead at that point and become the first rookie to score seven game-winners on the road in a season. He now has eight winners, three off the league lead and just one behind the former Chicago Blackhawk Steve Larmer for the single-season rookie record.

McClellan said after that game that it might be time to stop thinking of Couture as a rookie given his poise and contribution in big moments. Prior to an Apr. 4 contest against the Kings, McLellan said he had ceased considering Couture as any sort of neophyte well before that game against Washington.

"Probably in playoffs last year, the way he performed in pressure situations," said McLellan, whose team clinched their fourth straight Pacific Division title that evening. "We knew him coming back into training camp and getting some time in regular situations–whether it was power play or penalty kill–early in the year, he would grow as far as confidence."

Opposing coaches have also taken notice of the former Ottawa 67 Couture’s accomplishments. Terry Murray, a product of the 67s system more than 40 years ago, now coaches San Jose’s division rival the Los Angeles Kings. Among several things that made Couture a strong Calder Trophy candidate in Murray’s mind, his whopping 22 goals on the road, including seven game-winners, were perhaps the most prominent.

"That’s playing the game. It doesn’t matter where, it doesn’t matter if it’s on the checking side of it, he takes care of the business that has to be done," Murray said. "And you have to have that secondary scoring again. When you’re on the road, you’re obviously gonna match up against Thornton, you’re going to get your best defensemen and best checking line out there, so somebody else maybe has to do the job on any given night."

To complement his composed, well-rounded game, Couture demonstrates polish off the ice as well.

He deflects praise and focuses on team achievement at every turn, no matter how strong his personal contributions to San Jose’s success. His outstanding defensive play has added him to yet another list, one that includes the Red Wings’ wizard Pavel Datsyuk and Vancouver’s rugged Ryan Kesler as potential Selke Trophy nominees.

"I’ve heard that a little bit but I don’t know about that. I just try and play my game. I want to be a complete player in this league," said the two-way standout Couture. "If I get talked about that, it’s an honor, but I’m not too worried about that, I’m worried about just making the playoffs."

The milestones keep falling for Couture, who scored his 31st goal in an April 9th win over the Phoenix Coyotes. That placed him two goals behind Michael Grabner (NYI) for tops among rookies.

"It’s been fun. I definitely didn’t expect to have the stats that I have now. I’ve always been confident that I can play but it’s been a great year so far for myself," Couture said.