Being back on the ice at SAP Center felt like old times to Logan Couture.
It wasn’t just that the San Jose Sharks’ captain was playing his first game of the season after not suiting up for the first 45. It also was a Saturday night with a capacity crowd. One of their California rivals, the Anaheim Ducks, were in town.
And those feelings of a time when the Sharks were a Western Conference force resurfaced when Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the team’s longest-tenured player, drove to the net to bury a brilliant pass from a tiring Couture, the second longest-tenured Shark, for the game’s first goal. Tomas Hertl, the third longest-tenured, closed out the 5-3 win over the Ducks with an empty-net score.
These are three players who were part of the glory days, who have combined for 2,906 regular-season games and over 300 more in the playoffs, all with the Sharks. Yeah, Saturday had a decidedly retro vibe.
“It brought back some really good memories,” Couture told The Athletic. “Just seeing the smiles on the faces on our players and staff after that first goal when Marc scored. It’s why we play the game. That feeling right there. I really enjoyed it.”
Couture isn’t the only one with some extra appreciation for playing again, after overcoming what he revealed to reporters as osteitis pubis, which is inflammation between the left and right pubic bones that cause pain and swelling in the body’s groin and lower abdomen region. The Sharks are glad to have their leader back in uniform.
“He’s a big piece of this team,” winger Fabian Zetterlund said. “Yeah, we missed him a lot but now he’s back. He’s doing his job out there and he’s fun to watch.”
The first-period assist to Vlasic on Saturday is Couture’s only point in the three games he has played. That doesn’t begin to describe the influence or impact he has on the Sharks. San Jose followed up its win over Anaheim with victories over Los Angeles and the New York Rangers for its first three-game winning streak of the season.
Yes, the Sharks are undefeated with Couture. It has helped that Nico Sturm also returned Saturday to replenish their center depth, especially with a quietly effective Mikael Granlund now sidelined with an injury. But would they be much better than their 13-31-4 record that still keeps them at the bottom of the NHL standings had Couture been available all season?
Probably not a whole lot better. The Sharks are in a clear rebuilding mode, and this roster wasn’t put together with lasting success in mind. But they would be better, not only because he can still offer something on the ice – that assist Saturday gave him 701 points in 930 games – but also because he can give the club a presence that was missing in one of the more challenging seasons in franchise history.
“It’s so big and so huge,” Sharks defenseman Jan Rutta said. “The presence. The experience. Confidence. Of course, him being a center, that helps on the ice very much. Pretty much everything.”
Couture’s initial injury left him unable to participate in training camp, and each physical setback, after a hopeful bit of progress, left him feeling like an outsider. The pain, which he said was at times bad enough to make getting out of bed a monumental task, kept him from practicing with his teammates. Recovery often was done away from their facility, with a physiotherapist in San Francisco.
The process left Couture feeling as if he couldn’t be an effective leader in his captain’s role. He tried to be involved – he joined the team on the road for its annual rookie dinner and went on the club’s fathers’ trip to Las Vegas and Anaheim. But he couldn’t be of much assistance to a team with quite a bit of turnover that didn’t mesh at all in its season-opening 11-game losing streak or when it lost its way again with 12 straight defeats between Dec. 15 and Jan. 9.
“It’s not the same when you’re not going through it,” Couture said. “It looks different. It feels different when you’re kind of on the outside watching. Being around the guys, you could feel it, how difficult it was. Unless you’re going through it on a day-to-day basis like they were, it’s tough to put yourself in their shoes.
“I saw them work extremely hard to try and get out of it. These guys want to win. There are proud players in here. We’re going to finish the year pretty strong.”
That’s all Sharks coach David Quinn wants from him. Quinn eased his center into the fray with just under 16 minutes of work against the Ducks. Coming out of that, Couture said he lacked some of his usual energy in some shifts but that he only felt “normal sore” from playing and no pain from the groin and pelvic areas.
It has allowed Quinn to let go of any minutes restriction. Couture played 20:50 in the shootout win over the Kings and came right back in the Sharks’ third game in four nights with 20:17 played against the Rangers.
“One of the things he’s always done is manage his game,” Quinn said. “He’s a smart player. He understands the value of a good shift. Sometimes not a lot is going to happen, which is a good shift, and you’ve got to take pride in that and he does.”
There are times when it feels like Couture has been around forever, but his still-youthful face makes it hard to believe he’ll turn 35 in late March. This season will just be about him building his game back up to the level he is used to – one in which you can pencil him for 25 goals and 60 points for a full 82-game campaign.
But there is also the balance of his career. Couture, is officially an elder statesman. He’s not in his prime but there are examples of aging veterans who are still effective as they move further into their 30s. On Monday, he went against the Kings’ Anze Kopitar, still an essential player at 36. He doesn’t have to look far to see his old teammate, Joe Pavelski, who has 19 goals and 42 points for Dallas at 39.
Couture also has the nearby resources of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, whom he was tutored by in his earlier Sharks days and who remained big contributors in their mid-30s. He has tapped into their brains, and those of other seasoned big names he’s long been familiar with.
“I picked up so much in when to rest and how to take care of yourself away from the rink,” Couture said. “I trained in the summer – not this summer but years past – with Drew Doughty. Corey Perry was at our gym. Guys that have played for a long time. Kind of just ask each other questions. Feed off each other what we’re doing off the ice. It helps.”
What was the essential information he gained as they talked about being viable in an NHL that is more and more dependent on the energy and impact of teenagers and youngsters in their early 20s?
“Work,” he said. “Hard work. Love the game. If you ever lose the love and the fire, then that’s when it ends. I think those guys still love the game that are playing. The guys that are done now, they still love the game. Patty. Jumbo. Just how enjoyable they made each and every day.
“The season can get long. The season can get monotonous. But if you love coming into the rink and you love putting in the work, working hard with the guys on the team, it does not feel like a job at all and it’s still fun. That’s what I picked up, the main thing.”
With a contract that still runs through 2027 and an annual salary-cap charge of $8 million, Couture figures to be around for San Jose’s rebuilding process – unless there comes a day when he doesn’t want to be. He had a modified no-trade clause in his contract but, per Cap Friendly, it’s one in which he annually submits only three teams he’d readily accept a trade to.
He’s got his career-long teammates in Vlasic and Hertl. But he has also seen Pavelski, Thornton and Marleau leave. There have been conversations in the past with Sharks general manager Mike Grier about Grier’s vision for the club’s future and where Couture fits into that. Not this season, though. The focus has been on getting the center healthy. “His door’s open,” Couture said. “He’s around a ton. … I’m sure once I continue to play, maybe that changes. We’ll see.”
The Sharks’ recent jolt in their play is already showing how necessary he is for them now. And the center is thankful that his 2023-24 season may not be a total loss, as it once appeared to be.
“There’s a lot of positives for myself,” he said.” I think just stepping on the ice in warmup and seeing the fans and the bright lights. Told a few guys after, I was nervous. Skating around those first couple of laps, it felt almost surreal even though it’s only been nine months. The ups and downs through those nine months, there were times where I doubted if I would be able to do that again. Probably just stepping on the ice for warmup was the highlight.”
In the Sharks’ heyday, the barn that long ago earned its “Shark Tank” moniker was often considered the loudest in the NHL. Sellout crowds were the norm, and the arena’s low ceiling only amplified the noise that reverberated between its walls.
Finally free of pain and healthy, Couture allowed himself to take a moment and soak in the ambiance as he returned to action.
“Even with the 49ers (home playoff) game earlier in the day, I didn’t expect that,” he said. “Yeah, it’s great to have that building full again. When it’s full like that, it’s as loud as it gets in this league. It was a cool night.”
(Photo of Logan Couture: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)