Saturday, June 11, 2016

Logan Couture ... the next Bobby Clarke

By Larry Wigge

There's a confidence that oozes out when a young player competes against the best ... and the best of the best.

During a 13 minute, 43 second span of the first period, Logan Couture collected one goal and two assists to give the San Jose Sharks a 4-2 victory over Pittsburgh in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final, staving off the brink of elimation.

The Guelph, Ontario, native, set up Brent Burns and then tipped in a shot by Justin Braun before breaking a 2-2 tie with the Penguins when he set up Melker Karlsson.

With certain players backs to the wall, certain elite players -- step forward and are counted on.

Couture is the fourth player in the expansion era to post three points in a period with his team facing elimination in the finals.

The other players to achieve the feat are Stan Mikita (for the Blackhawks in 1973 in Game 5 at the Montreal Canadiens), Dirk Graham (for the Blackhawks in 1992 in Game 4 vs. the Penguins) and Pavel Bure (for the Vancouver Canucks in 1994 in Game 5 at the Rangers).

"Great players have that ability," coach Peter DeBoer said Friday. "I put him in that category. ... I think Logan has the ability to raise his level of play when the chips are down. I think he's done that for us the entire playoffs. It's a great gift to have. Not everyone has that ability."

Added DeBoer, "This is the time of year, your backs are against the wall, people have to step up with big-game performances. We got a couple last game from those guys. We've got to get a couple more in Game 6 here to give us a chance in Game 7."

Couture embraces the leadership role, when he became completely convinced that he had arrived as a player in the NHL. That happened in a second-round series against the Detroit Red Wings in 2111, when Logan contributed seven goals and seven assists.

"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," he explained. "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 Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

"It has helped me ton," he said. "I have been fortunate to be here for so many 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."

In his seventh year with the Sharks, 27-year-old center had 15 goals and 21 assists in 52 games. In the playoffs, Couture has nine goals and 20 assists in 23 games -- which includes 11 points and broke a 22-year-old single-season franchise record set by Igor Larionov's, coming against Nashville.

Passion and desire come through 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.

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 in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft 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."

Couture's 29 points are the most in the NHL in a single postseason since 2010, when Philadelphia's Danny Briere had 30 and Chicago's Jonathan Toews posted 29.

Couture has been a key to San Jose's success all season. He broke his right leg in practice after three games and missed nearly two months. He played just two games when he came back before internal bleeding in the leg forced him to miss three more weeks.

The Sharks were 32-15-5 with him in the lineup. Without him, they were 14-15-1.

"It's been a difficult year throughout the regular season," Couture said. "Missing games is never fun, injuries that are tough to get over. An ankle injury is difficult, I've never had something like this before. Mentally and physically it was difficult, but it makes it worth it now."

Said Couture, "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. 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."

He plays a full 200-foot game, both sides of the puck, power play, penalty kill, faceoffs.

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."

Former Sharks coach Todd McLellan says, "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."

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."

"He just really wants to win," said teammate Joel Ward of Couture. "He's so tenacious on the puck, battles so hard."

"He's been great -- in the playoffs, especially," Joonas Donskoi said. "He's kind of the brains of our line. He's very good defensively, too. I know he has many points in the playoffs, but he can defend as well. It's fun."

Said Marleau, "If you sit down and watch his game, he works nonstop out there. He does all those little things well and he's an extremely high-end, talented player. He should definitely be talked about."

Which leads us back to playoff hockey and consistency.

"There's nothing like NHL playoff hockey -- the talent and the parity is unbelievable," Couture said. "You look at other leagues like the NBA and you already know Cleveland is going to play the Warriors.

"With us, you don't know what's going to happen. Any team can win. You have (triple) overtimes. It's incredible."

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