Monday, May 20, 2013

Young Couture -- Mr. Do-it-all for the Sharks

By Larry Wigge

We marvel at each young player -- his growth, how he reacts to playing with men, how he gets his feet wet in the National Hockey League. It a period of self-evaluation ahead. You might also look at it as kind of a litmus test.

You have ask yourself whether you were ready for this experience and what did you learn?  Being an NHL player is kind of neat, are you prepared as he takes the next step in his career? How serious are you?

You don't have to be around him for more that a few moments to learn Logan Couture takes everything very seriously since he has joined the San Jose Sharks. 

"The first thing I noticed about NHL players is that I had to get stronger. I was no longer player every night against kids -- it was a game against men," Couture explained, who played in 25 regular-season game and another 15 in the playoffs as a rookie. "I had to be smarter, more mature, in every way I prepared for the game.

"I'm still learning the league. I'm still young and I'm learning all the stuff that comes along with being young player. I'd be lying if I would have said I'd have this many goal at his at this point in the season, but I've always been confident in the way I can play."

In just four short seasons, the Guelph, Ontario, native, is gathering a throng of supporters for being a member of the Canadian Team on the Olympic team at Sochi, Russia, in 2014. Playing for the Sharks, Couture is often lined up with the leadership of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. But, the 24-year-old center has already become their equal. He can beat you in many ways.

"He has a full 200-foot game, both sides of the puck, power play, penalty kill, faceoffs," coach Todd McLellan said. "His competitiveness is rubbing off on some of our older players. When that starts happening, you've really made your mark in the National league."

The confidence Couture gained by performing in the playoffs as a rookie certainly helped him. He is playing stronger on his skates and has added a touch of hunger to his game. With Logan, his passion and desire come through in each and every shift each night.
I'll never forget talking about Couture on draft and having one scout say, "He reminds me of a Bobby Clarke. He's gritty. He's in your face. He's just a good solid player."

That high praise indeed. But, others heaped praise on Couture.

Defenseman Dan Boyle, pausing as he carefully chose his words, said of the youngster.

"He's a tremendous player. He plays in all three zones. You want him on the last minute of the game, whether you are up or down a goal, he's going to block a shot or score.

"Whether it's his team or not, he's just an amazing player, I'll just put it that way."

Thornton was willing to be a little more blunt.

"Logan, this is his team," Thornton said. "He's going to be a great player for a long time."

Said McLellan, after a four-point effort in the regular season against Minnesota, "The way he's been playing lately, he's been driving our bus right now. He's the head guy and he's making it happen and we're happy for him."

Later, McLellan would qualify his statement. "He's elevated himself into an elite role. ... He's penetrated into that leadership group and solidified his place there." 

Yes, Logan loves scoring goals -- and Couture has scored 84 of them the last three seasons for the Sharks -- but he also enjoys preventing them.

Couture led the Sharks with 21 goals in the recently completed 48-game shortened regular season, but he is equally proud of the 51 blocks he registered -- tying him with New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan.

He's like a frustrated goaltender, who now spends a lot of time frustrating goaltenders.

"I have always enjoyed blocking shots," Couture said. "When I was a kid I played road hockey and I was always the goalie. I just enjoyed stopping the puck for some reason. I try to help our goalies out. Antti Niemi has been unbelievable this year. Guys love playing in front of him and helping out any way we can."

Defenseman Brad Stuart remembers Couture from when Stuart was playing for Detroit in a playoff series that rookie year. He stood out, says Stuart.

"He was just another young kid coming up that could skate and had some skill. Other than that, I didn't know him well," Stuart recalled. "But any time a young kid hurts you in playoffs you remember, because you don't expect that to happen. We saw flashes he was a good player and it was tough to say how good of a player he could become, but we're seeing it now.

"He's become really good."

How good Stuart believes Couture can become may be even scarier for opponents of the Sharks, including the Vancouver Canucks squad they're facing in the opening round playoff series.

"It's a tough comparison to make, but he reminds me in a lot of ways of Henrik Zetterberg," Stuart said. "He works hard all over the ice, is always competing and he's our leader.

"He's our leader right now on the ice. He does all the things you want a guy to do. I've thought it to myself but never actually said it. Hank's a great player and you don't compare guys to him easily. But watching Logan's game, the things he does and the way he works at both at both ends of the ice. He can be a player like that."

Part of that inner strength comes from Chet and Lori Couture -- who continued to take 3-year-old Logan out to stake, even though he cried all the way home.

"My dad always said, 'Have fun at the game. If you don't have fun, you shouldn't be playing,' " Couture said.

Couture shadows are lengthy in hockey and lacrosse. Chet Lemon, his grandfather, is a member of the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame. His dad played hockey and refereed in lacrosse for 13 years. His uncle, Brian, also spent time the lacrosse, and another uncle, Bob, was a famous softball pitcher. Currently, his father, Chet, is a firefighter, and his mother, Lori, a graduate of Brock University, is a physical education teacher. Logan grew up a fan of baseball and lacrosse in favor of hockey. He was a fan of the Buffalo Sabres and goaltender Dominik Hasek and Pat LaFontaine.

That varied background Logan grew up a strong-willed, mentally strong young man.

"I know what I expect out of myself," says Couture. "That's what I care about. I don't care what other people expect from me."

The Sharks have always drafted on the basis of character players first. Couture oozes that. In fact, San Jose moved up from 13th to ninth in the first round with St. Louis to pick Logan.

Obstacles to overcome? Logan list many, including mononucleosis his draft year, which dropped him in the draft rankings.

"When Logan Couture didn't make the World Junior team, he used that as a motivator," GM Doug Wilson observed. "He dominated the AHL. He's a young player that has earned his ice time."

Added Wilson, "He's a kid who can play with high-end players. He plays the game fast because he thinks the game so well."

Best advise for Couture came from his Ottawa 67s coach Brian Kilrea, who recalls, "Personally, I'd take a team of Logan Coutures. He never puts himself first. It's all about the team with him."

Skating is the major concern for scouts who downgraded. Kilrea recommended a power-skating guru to improve that part of his game.

"I have to work of my overall stride," said Couture. "I'm going work on my starts, crossovers."

But that's in the past. He is in the fast lane now -- and it began against Detroit.

"That series I lined up a lot against Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and I realized I could play against those guys and contribute offensively," Couture said. "I think I had four or five goals in that series and that was the point where I said I can be a good player in this league and took it into last year and had a good year and have grown a lot this year as well."

Couture said he has also benefitted greatly from playing with the likes of Thornton and Marleau.

"It has helped me ton," he said. "I have been fortunate to be here for four years and come to the rink every day and learn something new from those guys. They have been through a lot as players, whether it is in the NHL or internationally, they have experienced a lot. I picked up little things from them and took it to my game and it has helped me."

There's the drive to be better it comes in every conversation about Logan Couture. The bar seems to get higher and higher with every game he plays -- especially after scoring the deciding playoff winning goal against the Los Angeles Kings to cut the Kings lead to 2-1.

"He just does it all," Thornton said. "If you need a shootout goal, you put him in. Blocked shot or a penalty kill -- anything. He just continues to get better."

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