SAN JOSE -- Logan Couture could sense the Sharks needed a boost. Whether he could provide one was another matter. The team’s captain hadn’t played or practiced in seven weeks while rehabilitating a fractured ankle that might’ve still been unfit for duty during a dark time.
Couture knew that, even after a fired head coach and several serious injuries to star players, Tuesday was another low. General manager Doug Wilson traded Patrick Marleau, Brenden Dillion and Barclay Goodrow leading up to Monday’s trade deadline. Joe Thornton expressed interest in being moved and initial disappointment staying put.
Oh, and the Sharks had lost four straight on an extended road trip set to end that night in Philadelphia. Couture wasn’t sure if he was ready heading into game day and could’ve been forgiven for extending his absence to increase odds of returning in fine form. After all, the man hadn’t even practiced yet. He suited up and played the Flyers anyway.
Coming back in times of need is nothing new. Let’s not forget Couture’s the guy who played with two facial fractures and wiring to keep his teeth in place. That was the 2016-17 playoffs.
He still came rushing back, even with this season already dead and buried.
“It was an emotional 24 hours seeing a lot of friends leave the team,” Couture told NBC Sports Bay Area on Thursday morning. “Honestly, it really was difficult. We understood the circumstances, [that the Sharks would be sellers at the deadline], but we were still a fragile group that day after losing guys. I figured I should go out be with the team.
"I wish I could’ve been better, but I did the best I could.”
Couture’s form wasn’t great in a loss to the Flyers, but his presence gave the Sharks a lift.
“It was an important time for him to get back into the lineup for a couple reasons,” Sharks interim head coach Bob Boughner said. “First of all, it was good for him to get that first game over with. Also, with the situation that surrounded us on the road trip with the rumors and the trade deadline.
"After losing some good people it was important to see our leader come back into the lineup.”
Couture’s initial return brought positivity to a downtrodden group. His next appearance did even more. His overtime goal beat the New Jersey Devils 3-2 Thursday night and kickstarted a prolonged homestand where the Sharks hope to rebound despite losing so much talent to injury or trades.
“He played a ton of minutes, top-line minutes, on the penalty kill and power play,” Boughner said after a big win. “He did faceoffs when we need him and then hit the game-winner. That’s what those kinds of guys do. Logan leads by example.”
That’s his focus now that the Sharks seem set on playing young, fresh faces now seeing significant ice time as the organization plans for the future.
That doesn’t happen much in these parts. The team’s first-round pick way back in 2007 has missed the playoffs just once in 10 previous seasons. The second time’s coming this spring, in Couture’s first year as captain following an injury-impacted, subpar campaign by his own lofty standards.
Couture has taken that inevitability hard, looking inward first while trying to figure out what went wrong with the team and how to fix it.
“It has been difficult, and I’ve had a lot of learning experiences,” Couture said. “I think I could do several things better. I just don’t think I’ve done enough this year. I look at myself first and wish things were different.”
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This major ankle injury and the surgery to repair it was the hardest to handle. It wasn’t rehab or the pain involved that bothered him. Couture hated watching his team struggle without being able to help or lead from the ice as he’s accustomed.
“It has been a tough year from a team standpoint and from a personal standpoint,” Couture said. “It has been difficult with me being injured and not traveling the last couple months until this last road trip. I have been away from these guys and that’s never fun. When you’re away from the team you almost don’t feel like you’re a part of the group.
"I think a lot of the leaders around here did a great job and carried a message to the young guys to work hard and show they deserve to be here.”
Couture’s primary focus is helping get guys in the locker room ready for the next game. He is, however, keeping an eye on the big picture. That makes sense considering he’s going to be around a while, working under a $64 million contract with a modified no-trade clause that runs through the 2026-27 season.
He’s a respected locker room leader who runs a leadership-by-committee outfit to lean on experience from an established veteran core. Those that remain from that group and are healthy have leaned on each other during a trying period they hope will be remembered as a speed bump on a run of sustained success.
“It has really been tough. There’s no softer way to put it,” Couture said. “This experience has been very, very difficult. Experiencing adversity like this, it’s all about how to react to it.
“… Our goal right now is pretty simple. We want to play as hard as we possibly can during the games we have left. We’re not going to make the playoffs, but we can finish the year strong as a team and as individuals. That’s what you want. That’s what we need. You don’t want to head into the summer regretting how you finished. You want to give everything you can.
"It will be weird not playing in April, but hopefully we learn and get better after everything we’ve been through.”