SAN JOSE — They have called Joe Thornton “Jumbo” for as long as can be recalled, but the one element of his persona that has never been elephantine is his ego.
So when we relayed a growing refrain to Thornton — that this San Jose Sharks team no longer belongs to he and Patrick Marleau, but that the club has become Logan Couture’s Los Tiburones — his response was typically selfless.
“This is his team, and we’re all happy for him,” Thornton said.
Thornton: (winks) “Well, it’s pretty close.”
Couture had scored the game winner for San Jose in Game 1 over Vancouver. In Game 2 Thornton opened the scoring, a reminder that No. 19 is still going to have some say in the Sharks journey, whether or not general manager Doug Wilson has surrounded he and Marleau with more talent than perhaps ever before.
Their birth certificates lend inevitability to the passing of the torch, as the two faces of this franchise. Thornton and Marleau will be 34 by next season, and we shouldn’t forget that they went one-two in the 1997 Entry Draft.
And Couture is tangible evidence of a franchise rebuilding on the fly, through savvy drafting and development. Wilson selected Couture at No. 9 in 2007, a draft that included Patrick Kane (No. 1), James Van Riemsdyk (2), Sam Gagner (6), P.K. Subban (46) and Jamie Benn (129).
“He’s been a tremendous player from the day he got here. I just think he’s (now) being recognized for what he is: an all around, complete package player,” said veteran defenceman Dan Boyle.
Boyle is another name that was here when the Sharks were going to back-to-back Western Conference finals in 2010 and 2011. Now it’s a younger group, with Ryane Clowe and Doug Murray traded away at the deadline.
Is this Couture’s team now?
“I’ll just answer it this way,” Boyle said carefully. “Patty and Joe have been the face of the franchise for a number of years now. Since Logan got here, I’ve been his biggest fan. He’s a tremendous hockey player who plays in all three zones. You want him on the ice on the last minute of the game, whether you’re up or down a goal. He’s going to score the goal or block a shot.”
Couture’s 51 blocks were the third highest by a NHL forward this season. He tied for 10th in goal scoring with 21, never missed a game, and finished second on the Sharks behind Thornton with 37 points.
Next stop, Sochi.
“He has come so far in a few years,” said his coach, Todd McLellan. “He has a full 200-foot game, both sides of the puck, power play, penalty kill, faceoffs. His competitiveness is rubbing off on some of our older players and when that starts happening you have really made your mark in the National League.”
“He just keeps getting better and better,” marvels Thornton. “He kills penalties, or when you need a shootout goal, he’ll go score you a goal. He really does everything for this team.”
The full package, at 24 years of age, Couture is a metaphor for what the Canucks do not have. Vancouver’s top scorers are the soon-to-be 33-year-old Sedins, and Kesler, 28, who has a ton of miles on his chassis.
He’s adopted shot blocking and penalty killing, as Couture becomes perhaps the most complete young player in the Western Conference.
“My parents always tell me, just make sure I don’t get hit in the face. But, any way you can get into the lane, (I) get into it,” Couture said. “Look at Washington last year. The coaching staff was trying to get Ovechkin to block more shots.
“It means a lot when you see the big guys jump into the lanes and block shots.”
Couture, then , becomes a compilation of all the players he has learned from, as well as all the players those veterans were tutored by.
“I think of Ray (Bourque),” Thornton said. “I had a chance to play with Dave Andreychuk, Paul Coffey, Dave Ellet … You grab a piece of everybody and just kind of mold yourself, and evolve into your own type of player and person.”
Couture says he’s still learning, even though you’d never know it by watching his game. Or by hearing what people are saying, that this is Logan Couture’s team now.
“Well, Jumbo and Patty are still in their early 30s. Hopefully they’re going to be around here a while a well,” he said. “But it’s nice to hear. For people to say that, it’s an honour.”