On Matchups: A look at Logan Couture's first night against one the NHL's best defensive pairings

After the Los Angeles game I pondered when Logan Couture would start seeing top pairings and checking lines considering he and Ryane Clowe have been the most consistent Sharks line this season. As it turns out, all it took was former Sharks coach Todd Richards to recognize that and take advantage of the last change at home. Richards split his top defensive defenseman Greg Zanon up between Thornton and Couture all night, tasking him against both lines at a fairly even split. His second best stopper, Nick Schultz, saw the vast majority of his ice time against Couture and company. Although Richards didn't coach Couture at the NHL level, his familiarity with the organization obviously contributed to his decision.

Times are a changin' in San Jose, and it will be interesting to see what Blackhawks Head Coach Joel Quenneville does tonight. If McLellan goes back to HTML at even strength I'm sure you'll see Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook gets the nod against them, but if Marleau remains on the third line, I think there's a good chance Couture seems some of that ice time. Quenneville is a notorious matchup coach, much like Mike Babcock, and that comes with paying careful attention to trends and game tape. If Couture sees some healthy time against Keith-Seabrook, it's safe to say the kid has legitimately arrived (even if it's pretty clear he already has).

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Times are definitely a changin' eh? As we pointed out in our recap of San Jose's 4-3 victory over the Blackhawks, Logan Couture saw a heavy dose of Keith-Seabrook during the game. And when one says heavy dose, we mean it was lopped on like grandma's gravy. Couture was on the ice for 13:28 of even strength play last night, seeing 10:00 of that time against Keith and 8:30 against Seabrook. That's a phenomenal amount of respect from Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, and solidifies the fact that opposing team's are beginning to take notice of the skill set of Couture.

Unfortunately for the young centerman, who has seen second pairings for the majority of his games thus far, the results weren't especially effective against one of the NHL's best defensive pairings. Keith and Seabrook kept the chances to a minimum for the vast majority of their even strength ice time against Couture-Clowe-Ferriero, limiting the Sharks most dynamic line to a mere three shots at even strength (Clowe's empty netter being one of them). They were outshot and outplayed for the majority of the night, and surrendered some notable scoring chances in their own end.

Credit them for capitalizing on the power play of course, where a nice cross crease feed from Couture found Ferriero camped out near the blue paint.

 

However, the fact that they gave up the most shots against at even strength last night amongst all Sharks (Couture had a -15 CORSI, which measures shots directed towards each net) makes it hard for me to say they handled their increased responsibility by stepping up to the challenge. Couture & Co. have consistently lead the team in these metrics during this entire season. Unfortunately, last night wasn't one of them.

The question this raises is twofold-- will Couture and Clowe see more of these assignments on the road? One must think they will considering their importance to the team. They're the top line right now in San Jose in respect to consistently generating scoring opportunities on a game by game basis, and it's becoming increasingly clear that they've managed to carry the Sharks through a lot of offensive hardships.

Secondly, what of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley? Thornton saw a heavy dose of Brian Campbell last night, hardly a spokesperson for defensive responsibility, and had a mercurial game. I like the fight to the front of the net mentality he showed to deflect Marc-Edouard Vlasic's shot from the point and notch the game winner, but I wouldn't call his performance against the second pairing awe-inspiring. He was hemmed in his own zone quite a bit, tried to float some centering passes into the middle of the zone that were subsequently picked off, and didn't establish himself physically along the boards. With Keith and Seabrook focused on Couture, I would have liked to see a bigger game from the Captain.

Yesterday FTF reader kiwi93 put together a look at some of the top point producing players from Western Conference rivals, divided it by salary, and came up with some rather interesting conclusions. Marleau, Heatley, and Thornton are lowest on the totem pole against their contemporaries, notching 4.44 PTS/million dollars paid. The closest rival is Datsyuk-Zetterberg-Franzen, who have picked up 6.572 PTS/million. As Drew Remenda is quite fond of saying, "Your best players have to be your best players", and it's fairly clear here that HTML has not produced what they are being paid to offensively.

As the ball drops tonight ringing in the New Year, the question of whether or not the big line can consistently play up to their abilities will be one that will determine the Sharks chances in April. With Couture getting recognition and respect from opposing coaches around the league, teams are beginning to tailor their gameplans to shut down his line. If last night's game against Chicago is any indication, it's hard to say he's ready to take on the League's best, which is an expectation that shouldn't be placed on him anyways-- it's a role Thornton, Heatley, and Marleau are paid for, no matter how important secondary scoring is to sustained success.

Two points are two points. That was an important win. But in order for those to continue, Thornton and the Sharks' other stars must demand opposition's attention relative to their ice time, reputation, and role in San Jose.

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