Centers Logan Couture and Joe Thornton have now both returned to the ice in the first round against the Edmonton Oilers, to varying degrees of effectiveness. Thornton looked closer to his usual self last night than Couture has this series, and that likely comes down to usage.
Take a look at these usage charts from the regular season and playoffs, respectively, courtesy of Corsica. The farther each player’s dot is to the right of the graph, the more zone starts outside of the defensive zone. The farther up along the y-axis, the better competition the player is facing. Blue dots indicate the player is posting positive possession numbers, and the larger dot means the player has gotten more ice time.
So far this postseason, Couture is actually playing against better competition than he did this regular season, albeit and with harder zone starts. Thornton, on the other hand, faced worse competition and with a much higher ratio of zone starts outside of the defensive zone.
Last night, even with the Sharks employing last change, Couture’s usage largely held true. At even strength, his most common opponent was Connor McDavid, according to Natural Stat Trick. Where his usage changed, though, was in zone starts, as Couture started 71% of his shifts outside of the defensive zone.
Thornton, meanwhile, was not hard-matched nearly as much as Couture was. He saw the most time against Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ line, but Couture saw nearly four more minutes of McDavid than Thornton saw of Nugent-Hopkins, indicating that Thornton’s saw a variety of opposition.
It appears that head coach Peter DeBoer eased Thornton back into the lineup last night, while Couture has not gotten the same treatment, and has even had more asked of him than he did during the regular season.
Given the serious injuries each player suffered so close to the beginning of the postseason, it’s confusing that Couture has not gotten the same treatment as Thornton. It’s especially head-scratching given how much Couture has struggled against the top competition he’s faced.
The forwards Couture has played against most in this series are Nugent-Hopkins, Patrick Maroon, McDavid, Jordan Eberle, and Milan Lucic, and has failed to crack 50% corsi for (CF) or fenwick for (FF) against each player, according to Natural Stat Trick.
It’s even more confusing given Hertl’s success against McDavid (52.17 CF% in in 10:06) this series, and DeBoer’s usage against McDavid in the Sharks’ last regular season matchup with the Oilers. DeBoer said this week the Sharks are “comfortable that whoever gets on the ice against” McDavid can hold their own, but using an injured Logan Couture as his most common forward opponent indicate otherwise.
While McDavid was kept off the scoresheet last night, so too were the rest of the Sharks, and for the second straight game. As a result, it would make sense to give Couture easier assignments than he’s faced so far, and rely on Hertl’s line against tougher competition.
Couture may be back on the ice and his cage may be gone, but he’s not been the same player as he was prior to his injury. The Sharks clearly prepared for this to be the case with Thornton, and he was pretty successful in a sheltered role last night.
Recognizing Couture’s limitations will be vital to the Sharks’ efforts to tie up the series tomorrow night while DeBoer is still able to utilize last change. They won’t have that luxury in Game 5, and without it, the task of extending the series becomes even more difficult.