Couture leading Sharks' new leaders

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- For years, win or lose, the playoff performances of the San Jose Sharks were judged on the backs of two players: Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

Fair or not, those two players had to answer for all 23; they carried the weight of the team, and the spotlight was squarely on them.

Take a step back for a moment and perhaps the most revealing thing about Logan Couture's gutsy Game 3 heroics Saturday night is that they're representative of what's happening with the evolution of this team.

Thornton and Marleau were both terrific in Game 3, but they don't have to be the story all the time now.
They don't have to be the heroes. They don't have to do it all. And they don't have to answer for it all, either.

"Joe and Patty are still leaders of this team, but I think with the emergence of Logan getting right up there with those guys, I think it's maybe taken the pressure off them a little bit," veteran San Jose blue-liner Brad Stuart said Sunday. "For him to be able to do that at his age, I think is impressive. He's probably learned a lot from those two guys and other guys they've had in here in previous years, and he's just applying it now. He's been great for us."

Couture is leading a young leadership core on this Sharks team, taking ownership on and off the ice as part of an evolution of the team that's happening before everyone's eyes this season.

"I've been here for five years, and we've gone through three captains, which is an exceptional rate, but for different reasons," head coach Todd McLellan said. "Patty Marleau did a tremendous job, Rob Blake for a year before retiring, and now Jumbo [Thornton]. As time goes on, organizations evolve -- good ones do. They have people coming. They have a torch that is held by one, then it's shared, then it's passed on. We hope that we're doing that in this organization."

And no one finds it more exciting to watch it unfold than the captain himself.

"It is. It really is," Thornton told ESPN.com in an interview Sunday. "You see a guy like Logan coming in just at training camp that first time, and, all of a sudden, now he's, I think, probably the most complete hockey player there is in the NHL today. It's so fun to watch these young guys grow and become such a big part of this team. For a guy that's 33 like myself, you have so much fun coming to the rink working alongside these guys because they're just so enthusiastic."

When Couture battled back from a leg injury Saturday night to score the overtime winner, player after player in the dressing room called him the leader of the team.

It's an incredible endorsement for a 24-year-old player. And in no way is it undermining the current captain. What's happening in this dressing room is a seamless, natural progression. And Thornton is the biggest fan of it all.

"I mean, he is the future of this team and he's the present of this team, that's just the reality," Thornton said. "Me and Patty have been the face of this franchise for a lot of years, but you hope that a guy comes along and grabs it and runs with it. And I think Logan is doing that this year, and it's exciting to see for a such a good guy and a great player to do that."

"I've done Sharks playoff games in the past. Everything seems different about them this year, new, fresh," former NHLer Ray Ferraro, now an analyst for Canada's TSN, said. "When I watch Couture now, he plays with a seriousness to the task, yet has an approach that seems lighter and has spread through the team as he takes a larger role. Simply, he does most things right most of the time, all 200 feet of the ice."

It's pretty obvious to everyone here that one day, Couture will wear the "C" on this team. But it's the last thing he wants to hear about right now.

"Joe is here, and he's our captain. He's someone I respect a lot as a person and as a player," Couture said. "I've learned a lot from him. He's done a great job since he's been captain. We have other guys like Boyler, [Dan Boyle], who I have a ton of respect for, too; Patty, Pav, a lot of leaders in this room."

Couture's focus is on the here and now. What lies ahead will play out in due time.

"All I'm striving for right now is to win the Stanley Cup," he said. "I haven't thought about being a captain or anything like that."

It's not just about Couture, either. The older core led by Thornton, Marleau and Boyle, as McLellan put it, is now sharing the torch with Couture and others such as Joe Pavelski, 28, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, 26.
Pavelski and Vlasic have been Sharks for a while, but what's emerging now is their comfort in taking a bigger leadership role along with Couture.

"A few of us have been here several years," Pavelski, who was outstanding in Game 3, said. "There's a lot of experience. We've played a lot of playoff games. We expect big performances from each other, and it's starting to show a little bit more. You can see how guys are putting it on themselves; it's just not me or Cooch [Couture] or Pickles [Vlasic]. Everybody is contributing and expects to win every night."

That's just it. Not only is the burden of leadership being spread among more players now on this team, but from top to bottom, there's a larger sense of responsibility being accepted instead of putting it all on the shoulders of Boyle, Marleau and Thornton. When the Sharks lost the two opening games in L.A., you didn't see the normal finger pointing at the same old players.

This club now wins and loses as a team.

"This team is a bit different than it was in the past," McLellan said. "A few more characters that are involved in the team. Probably, with all due respect to the players involved in the team and to the ones that are gone, we have less name-like players -- stars, if you will. More of a team feel now. When you have that, you're able to come out of your shell a little bit more, and those players are doing that."

Added Thornton: "Before, it was just a couple of us. Now, everybody is just as big part of the team. I really do feel it's a team. We're all in this together. Every night somebody different is stepping up, and that's how we've been winning."

And with that, the Sharks are also slowly changing the perception of their franchise to the outside world.
Despite playing the second-most playoff games (behind only Detroit) since 2004, the Sharks have carried the tag of a team that, over the past decade, left you wanting more.

"They changed their team during the season, traded [Ryan] Clowe, [Douglas] Murray, [Michal] Handzus -- all big, slow guys … then added [Raffi] Torres, moved [Brent] Burns up," a Western Conference coach, who requested anonymity, said. "They've followed the identity of Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis: much faster and physical; moved into a hard forechecking team. They have speed that can break ahead of the play -- now very dangerous on the rush. Used to be a cycle team only."

But bit by bit, the character shown in Game 3 on Saturday night chips away at that perception.

"I would hope so," Pavelski said. "Probably deserved to a point, too [the previous perception]. But in here, every year, it hasn't felt that way however way we're perceived. We felt we had as good a chance to win as anyone. We went to the conference finals in back-to-back years [2010-11], where we didn't perform like we would have wanted to. Those are learning experiences."

There's a serious hunger to prove people wrong on this team, Couture said.

"We've been through a lot as a group of guys," Couture said. "A lot has been said about this team's character throughout the years, and I don't think it's fair what's said outside of this room, but we believe in here -- we always have, we always will -- that we can come back and win any game."

And as Couture pointed out, it's no big deal in his eyes that he played hurt in Game 3. He's seen first-hand how Thornton and Clowe both played with separated shoulders in the 2011 Western Conference finals against Vancouver.

"Two years ago, Clowe and Jumbo couldn't even put their own jerseys on in the playoffs," Couture said. "They had guys putting their jerseys on for them, their shoulders were so bad. Just stuff like that, guys playing through a lot of things."

Couture could barely put any weight on his left leg when he left the ice Saturday night. To come back and score the overtime winner, that's something that's going to live on for a long time in this town.

But Couture shrugged it off.

"I would hope every player on this team would play through injuries and do whatever they can to help us win," Couture said. "It's what hockey players do. You know what you're playing for. I don't want to let anyone down in this room, and I know everybody here feels the same way. So you play through whatever you can to help the team."

That's a leader talking. And, as McLellan said Sunday, Couture's work ethic and passion is contagious on the rest of the team.

"He's got a passion for the game that's second to none," the Sharks coach said. "He's got an energy that he brings; he never quits on plays. He drags a lot of people into the game, and that's a sign of a good leader."