By Wes Goldstein, CBS Sports Staff Writer
SAN JOSE (CBS Sports) — With hand wringing about fighting all the rage in the NHL these days, Logan Couture could easily become one of those players who fade into the background for a while.
For one thing, he already had what he claims is his annual fight way back in November. For another, he’s a rookie playing for a team in a time zone that tends to be overlooked, if not forgotten.
Especially when it comes to voting for individual awards.
Couture seems kind of used to it by now, even if he is only a rookie. The 21-year-old got an initial taste of hockey life spent mainly under the radar on the West Coast with the San Jose Sharks last season in 25 games and 15 more in the playoffs. Then he had another only a few weeks ago when one of his top rivals for the Calder Trophy, Carolina’s Jeff Skinner, turned into a Justin Bieber-type of rock star before the very eyes of the national media assembled for the All-Star Game in Raleigh.
Couture was there too. But he only took part in the skills competition while Skinner got into the game in front of an adoring crowd as an injury replacement. Still if the Sharks center was only one of the extras on the national stage, he has distinguished himself on a Sharks team loaded with marquee names like Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle. And he has done so in a way that would now land him the San Jose team MVP award, if not the league’s rookie of the year prize.
Coach Todd MacLellan describes him “a catalyst for our team, a go-to guy,” who has inspired enough confidence to play in situations generally not handled by first year players.
“Logan shows up to play every day,” MacLellan said. “He’s made a number of players around him better and not necessarily the rookies but some of the veterans too. He’s brought them along and made them better.”
For his part, Couture seems a little reluctant about accepting that particular analysis from his coach, shrugging it off with the typical “just trying to help the team win” response. That said, the player taken ninth overall in 2007 does admit things have gone pretty well in his rapid ascent to a regular job in the NHL.
Couture was penciled in for a roster spot coming into the season, but has increased his ice time since early on by getting to play quite a bit on both special teams. For everyone involved, the big time offense has been the added bonus.
“It’s definitely been a fun year so far,” Couture said. “I mean on this team there are so many superstars it’s been nice for me to kind of slide in there on the second or third line. I don’t get the big checkers most nights. They’re focused on Jumbo and Heater and Patty, so I’m enjoying it right now.”
He should, because chances are it won’t last very for long. That’s already apparent, MacLellan said, because teams that don’t start games with their best defenders tracking Couture often end up that way.
“You’d be surprised how it’s changing,” MacLellan said. “He may not see the top guys at the beginning, but he’s not going to get a free pass anymore because coaches evaluate on the fly and flip things around.”
Not that it seems to be bothering Couture. He leads the Sharks with 24 goals including eight game-winners, many of them the result of him getting to the front of the net rather than being on the perimeter. In a telling stat about how well he has played without the puck, he has the best plus-minus rating on the team.
“He’s a complete player who plays it both ways,” said Boyle. “I’d say he’s arguably our best player this season, not just our best rookie. It takes confidence to get to a certain level and he’s got it an early age.”
Couture acknowledged there was more of a comfort level for him coming into the season having had NHL time in the last one. His first year as a pro gave him a head start as a full-fledged rookie, a status he almost lost because of the number of games he played last season.
“I really learned a lot in those games and in the playoffs and I knew what to expect coming in, but the funny thing is I actually didn’t know I still qualified [for the Calder] until someone told me a few games into the season,” Couture said. “What I was most concerned about was making this team and helping it win.”
And now, about the Calder race that has recently seen Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders enter the conversation as well?
“Sure it’s nice be in consideration for it, but I’m not really thinking about it too much,” he said. “The main thing for us is to make the playoffs first. If we play well and if I continue to play well, things will work themselves out. I don’t think it really matters where I play.”
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