SAN JOSE — What lies ahead is a grueling journey, but the last 48 hours have also been a challenge for Sharks forward Logan Couture as a dozen other NHL teams got the 2013-14 season under way.
"I know it was tough last night," he said Wednesday, "watching games and wishing we were playing."
He gets that wish tonight when the Sharks get their slightly delayed start to the 2013-14 NHL season against the Vancouver Canucks. For Couture and his teammates, it's the beginning of another nine-month opportunity to prove the skeptics wrong and finally bring that elusive Stanley Cup to San Jose.
Couture, 24, is in a different situation this season. He came to camp with a five-year, $30 million contract extension after emerging as one of the team's leaders on and off the ice. And he's finally older than a teammate or two.
"I've been the youngest guy for the last four years," he said before praising the "energy and excitement" that rookie forwards Tomas Hertl, 19, and Matt Nieto, 20, bring to a Sharks team about to learn if it can sustain a full season of the up-tempo, aggressive style adopted last spring.
Forward Raffi Torres, who helped spark that change in style, won't be in the lineup for the next few months as he recovers from knee surgery. But the Sharks say they don't expect anybody to cut them any slack and welcome being judged from opening night on.
"Every team has injuries or suspensions or whatever," general manager Doug Wilson said. "This is an opportunity for some young guys who have made this team. And, yes, they have the ingredients that fit exactly how we want to play."
The injury to Torres opened a spot for Nieto alongside Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels. Hertl was penciled onto the roster before camp began, but has played well enough to open the season on a top line with Joe Thornton and Brent Burns.
The Sharks initially planned to use a third rookie against Vancouver. But Wednesday, Coach Todd McLellan elected to go with more size and toughness, calling up Matt Pelech, 26, from the San Francisco Bulls and sending Hamilton to Worcester for what may be a short stint.
All in all, the Sharks say they like their mix in the room.
"There's some youth involved and I still think the core guys are in the prime of their career," said Dan Boyle, the team's elder statesman at 37. "I like the balance moving forward."
More and more, Couture has become the focal point of that balance. His team-leading 21 goals in a lockout-shortened 2012-13 season project to 36 over 82 games, but Couture says he doesn't feel any extra external pressure.
"I don't really listen to the outside world," he said. "It's what I believe I can do. If I'm not playing well, I know that. And if I'm playing well, I know that."
McLellan called Couture "as competitive a guy as we have. He holds himself to a very high standard even in practice."
And the coach expects Couture to continue to get better, even if he no longer skating under the radar.
Couture is also expected to show the leadership responsibility that he was given in the playoffs over an extended period of time.
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