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The Daily Chum: Is Logan Couture ready to be a No. 1 center?

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Joe Thornton won’t be the Sharks’ 1C forever ... will Couture take the reigns?

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Buffalo Sabres Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Logan Couture has long been billed the future of the San Jose Sharks. With Joe Thornton nearing the end of his most recent deal, will Couture fulfill his destiny to take over as the top line center of the Sharks when Jumbo hangs up the skates? Thornton still has plenty of years left in the tank, but they likely won’t be No. 1 center years. Even now, Thornton has shown some decline in his game and the Sharks need to plan for the future.

That’s why talk about John Tavares and Matt Duchene has heated up. Duchene, at least in my mind, isn’t the kind of No. 1 center you win a Stanley Cup with. With that being said, is Couture? He currently centers The Good, the Boed and the Ugly line with Patrick Marleau and Mikkel Boedker to great success. If asked to step up to the top line with Joe Pavelski and a winger like Marleau or Boedker would he Couture similar success?

I’m not so sure. Couture has never come all that close to being a point per game player, topping out at 0.83 back in 2013-14. Here are his scoring averages by year:

09-10: 0.36

10-11: 0.7088607595

11-12: 0.8125

12-13: 0.7708333333

13-14: 0.8307692308

14-15: 0.8170731707

15-16: 0.6923076923

16-17: 0.6724137931

The idea of a top line center scoring fewer than 0.70 points per game doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. Head coach Pete DeBoer often uses his second line as a shutdown unit to allow Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski to get the scoring done. That means Couture plays a more defensive role with the Sharks, which includes killing penalties in addition to taking tougher zone assignments 5v5.

Before we get there, let’s take a more nuanced look at Couture’s scoring. He is 28th in primary points (goals + primary assists) per 60 minutes amongst the 131 centers who have played at least 2,000 5v5 minutes over the past three seasons (from corsica.hockey). I know that’s a mouthful, so hang with me here.

That’s pretty good! It’s better than Pavelski, who slots in at 31, and Thornton who’s all the way down at 77. Of course this is a bit deceiving because it excludes power-play points — you know, where those players do the bulk of their damage. Still, I’m more interested in 5v5 scoring at this point because that’s where your No. 1 center needs to be at his best.

The question for the Sharks isn’t whether Couture can dominate on the power play: It’s can he step toe-to-toe with Connor McDavid and beat him. Let’s check out some tables from ownthepuck.blogspot.com, shall we?

YIKES. Let’s take a moment and appreciate this says a lot more about McDavid than it does about Couture. This says a lot more about McDavid than it does about Couture. This says...holy sh**. Couture doesn’t need to match up head-to-head with the future best player in the NHL in order to be the Sharks’ No. 1 center, but... he at least needs to hang with him.

Let’s look at his three-season card from the excellent HockeyViz.com to get some more visualization on Couture.

Looking at this chart makes me wonder if I’m asking the right question: Is Logan Couture already the Sharks’ No. 1 center? He’s basically getting first line ice time and he’s scoring at the rate of a first line player. He scores more primary points than Pavelski and Thornton at even strength and while his possession numbers aren’t as good as those guys he gets tougher zone starts. Let’s see if the numbers back that hypothesis up.

Short answer: No, not really. Couture doesn’t see the same top players Thornton and Pavelski do, although he does get more defensive zone faceoffs. What this tells me is both Todd McLellan and DeBoer aren’t committed to the idea of a true No. 1 center right now. They like the idea of a 1a and 1b line they can use situationally. The ice time backs that up. Average ice time at even strength:

Pavelski: 14.57

Thornton: 13.97

Couture: 12.79

That’s pretty darn close!

I’m not convinced the Sharks can win a Stanley Cup with Couture as their No. 1 center in the years to come without a very strong No. 2 center ala Duchene; but I think it can be done. This, of course, ignores the possibility a guy like Tomas Hertl grows into that role. I’m not a projection master and don’t pretend to be.

When a Duchene or Tavares trade is discussed, think of it in terms that go beyond this season: yes, the Sharks should think about going all in this season... but Doug Wilson should also consider about preparing for life after Thornton being able to drag the team to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s not that far away.