Joe Thornton is still their captain, and for all the grief he gets, he was their leading scorer last season and a beast in the playoffs. Patrick Marleau is still in San Jose. Dan Boyle is still in San Jose.Couture is not dodging the question, and he is not wrong. The Sharks are not his team, not yet. “Jumbo”
Believe it or not, at 24, Couture is the youngest of the Sharks’ returning regulars.
But there is a reason it has become fashionable to refer to the Sharks as his team – haute Couture among the hockey cognoscenti – and one day, almost certainly, maybe soon, they will be.
Coach Todd McLellan called Couture “the head guy” late last season because of the way he was playing, scoring goals, blocking shots, pushing for the playoffs. General manager Doug Wilson, who has talked about a “refresh” and “reset” instead of a rebuild, signed Couture to a five-year, $30 million extension early in the offseason. Thornton, Marleau and Boyle all are in the final years of their contracts.
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The Sharks might re-sign some or all of the old guard. Really, the old guard is not that old. Thornton and Marleau are both 34. Boyle is 37. No, they have not made the Stanley Cup Final in San Jose, let alone won a championship, but they have been in the mix for many years and should continue to be. Maybe if they have to fight to keep their spots in a place they want to stay, that will keep them sharp or propel them farther. We’ll see.
This is a time of transition and maybe tension. Now that Couture has taken a larger role on the ice and in the room, his influence is expected to keep growing no matter what happens to Thornton, Marleau and Boyle. Couture – along with 29-year-old center Joe Pavelski, who also received a five-year, $30 million extension in the offseason – can supplement and push the older leaders, if not replace them.
“My first and second year, if we were struggling, I wouldn’t say anything, I’d be quiet,” Couture says. “Last year, if we were struggling, I could go in and say something to those guys. I think that’s really the difference, just feeling more comfortable on the ice and having it translate to off the ice.”
Couture was the ninth overall pick in the 2007 draft. After splitting the 2009-10 season between the minors and the NHL, he leapt to an elite level. He scored 32 goals in 2010-11. He scored 31 in 2011-12. He scored 21 last season in the lockout-shortened, 48-game schedule – the equivalent of about 36 goals over a normal 82-game schedule. His defensive game grew, too. Only one forward blocked more shots than Couture did last season: the famously gritty captain of the New York Rangers, Ryan Callahan.
As Couture has gained stature, he has come out of his shell – and been asked to help those still in theirs. Last season, younger players or role players started using him as a bridge to, or a buffer between, the old guard.
“They’ll come to me, and they’ll say, ‘Say something,’ because they don’t want to,” Couture says. “They’ll tell me to say something for them. I’ll stick up for those guys. I know when I came in I was intimidated by [the older] guys, even though they were very approachable, easy to talk to. You’re still intimidated. You look at what they’ve done in their career.”
McLellan started including Couture in the leadership group for the first time last season. Sometimes, he would speak to him individually. Sometimes, he would speak to him with the others. At one point, the Sharks were struggling and feeling burnt out by the compressed schedule. McLellan had been skating them hard. The leaders went to the coach and asked for a break.
“We made sure we won a couple in a row,” says Couture with a laugh, “so we got some more days off.”
McLellan is a hard-driving straight shooter. Couture isn’t quite as outgoing and loquacious, but he gets along with the only NHL coach he has ever known and is from much the same mold. He drives hard and shoots straight. He is smart, opinionated and now unafraid to share his thoughts.
Ask about the changes the Sharks made last season, and he tells it like it was. The Sharks traded Ryane Clowe, Michal Handzus and Douglas Murray for draft picks. Couture says they were “good players, but slower players.” That alone made the Sharks faster. Then they added Raffi Torres, whose speed and physical edge made them more difficult to play against, and Scott Hannan, whose experience bolstered the back end.
“I think we got better after the deadline, and it really showed,” Couture says.
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Ask about the seven-game, second-round loss to the Los Angeles Kings, and Couture does not hide behind diplomacy. The Kings were the defending Stanley Cup champions, but the Sharks missed Torres, who was suspended for the series after a hit in Game 1, and Jonathan Quick outdueled Antti Niemi in goal.
“I thought we were still the better team than L.A. in the playoffs,” Couture says. “I just thought we got beat by Quick, even though Niemi was great for us.”
Ask about the Olympics, and Couture does not pretend it’s not on his mind, while insisting his first priority is getting off to a good start for the Sharks. He went to Team Canada’s orientation camp in Calgary last month and felt like he was sitting in meetings in San Jose. McLellan used to work for coach Mike Babcock with the Detroit Red Wings, and so the terminology and systems were almost exactly the same – from entries to tracking to power play to faceoffs. It might give him an advantage.
“Hopefully,” Couture says.
Funny. This is a time of transition and maybe tension for Team Canada, too. The Canadians are looking for the next generation to play a larger role in Sochi – not just Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews, but first-time Olympians like John Tavares and Steven Stamkos. You might call it a “refresh” and “reset.” Couture could be part of it, a big part. Over the past three NHL playoffs, he has put up almost a point per game.
When Team Canada won gold at the 2010 Games, Couture was in Worcester, Mass., playing in the minors. Thornton, Marleau and Boyle were in Vancouver, not to mention ex-Shark Dany Heatley, now a member of the Minnesota Wild. When Team Canada goes to Sochi in February, Couture could go with Thornton, Marleau and Boyle, or some combination, or maybe even as the lone representative of his team.
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