The 2015 off-season hit Logan Couture like a punch in the face, because it began in April. It's a horrible feeling to realize your season is over the day the regular season ends, and Couture, 26, never experienced it in his first five NHL seasons. His San Jose Sharks missed the post-season for the first time in his career this past spring, and he makes no effort to sugarcoat how much he hates that.
"It sucks. It really sucks."
Couture resents the fact he hasn't played competitive hockey since April 11 – a date he quotes, like he circled it on his calendar. He and the teammate he calls 'Jumbo,' fellow center Joe Thornton, felt a wave of frustration hit them earlier this summer when they realized they were used to playing hockey in May.
"We were golfing, and we both talked about how much this sucks, how we don't want this to happen again," Couture said. "It makes you hungrier and hungrier, and we're ready to get an extra serving right now."
The good news for Couture is his GM, Doug Wilson, acted with that same hunger come late June and early July. It appeared the Sharks had peaked and commenced a long descent into rebuilding land, as they'd ended a streak of 10 consecutive post-season berths and core forwards Thornton and Patrick Marleau were slated to turn 36 before the start of 2015-16. San Jose had its first top-10 pick since 2007 at the 2015 draft and nabbed big winger Timo Meier ninth, eight years after selecting Couture in the same spot. No one would've faulted Wilson for turning his team belly up, especially after Thornton publicly criticized him.
Alas, it appears Wilson wants to make one more push. Regardless of how frayed his relationship with Thornton is, Thornton has a no-movement clause, as does Marleau. Thornton carries a $6.75-million cap hit and Marleau a $6.67-million cap hit for two more seasons, so neither contract would be easy to move anyway. Wilson evidently saw weakness to exploit among the Western Conference's lower playoff rungs, and he pounced. He traded for goaltender Martin Jones to give San Jose a new starting goaltender. Wilson paid good money for veteran defenseman Paul Martin and rugged right winger Joel Ward. Both players are in their mid-30s and both signed multi-year deals, so Wilson sent a clear message he believes this team can compete for a playoff spot next season and beyond.
Maybe Wilson is onto something. Martin combines with Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, Brenden Dillon and Mirco Mueller to form a strong top six on the blueline. Ward joins a forward group that was already pretty deep with Couture, Thornton, Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl, Tommy Wingels, Chris Tierney and Melker Karlsson, among others. The Sharks team was caught in purgatory, as even its biggest detractors couldn't deny the roster remained reasonably competitive. San Jose could've been bad again in 2015-16 but had too much talent to be that bad. So Wilson decided loading up some more may swing the momentum back toward contention and salvage his job.
It appears to have worked at the very least to boost the players' morale. Couture saw the trade and signings as a vote of confidence and says he'll enter next season more excited than he has in a while. It's a good omen for any team when a player who averages 30 goals and 62 points per 82 games feels fired up to play harder than ever.
"I talked to Doug a couple times throughout the summer, and we want to win," Couture said. "San Jose does. That's our goal. We realize our best players, Jumbo and Patty, are getting a little bit older. I think we have the core to win, and Doug went out and got some very good players. Paul, Martin Jones, Joel, they're just going to help us."
Will the moves be enough to push San Jose back above water in the Pacific Division, which has also seen the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings make significant roster improvements? Couture can only wait and wonder for now. He'll pass the time by watching his beloved Toronto Blue Jays. He grew up in London, Ont., a fan and he still is one today, especially since he's friends with a bunch of their players. He caught up with THN at Smashfest, Dominic Moore's charity ping-pong tournament, and Couture said he drove down to Toronto early so he could rush to his hotel room and catch the Jays' matinee against Oakland on TV.
It's fitting that Couture identifies so closely with the Jays, as they're a bubble playoff team with a completely cloudy future, just like his Sharks.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin