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Couture discovering challenges in second full season

by Dave Lozo
If Logan Couture is looking for advice on how to avoid a letdown in his second full NHL season, perhaps he can look at how Zach Parise excelled with heightened expectations while facing nearly the same scenario four years ago.

Parise didn't have a Calder-worthy rookie campaign with the Devils the way Couture did with the Sharks last season, amassing just 14 goals and 32 points in 81 games. But in his second season -- the first one in which he was playing consistently on scoring lines -- Parise had 31 goals and 62 points in 82 games as a 22-year-old, very similar numbers to what Couture posted as a 21-year-old rookie.

Parise followed his sophomore season with a nearly identical one, with 32 goals and 65 points in 81 games. Back-to-back 30-goal seasons would seem to be evidence that Parise thrived with a bull's-eye on his back after his breakout campaign, but he said it was anything but easy to repeat the feat in his third season.

"I wouldn't say it was harder. It was more frustrating because I wanted to take bigger step than I did," Parise said. "It was more frustrating of a season. I remember I started off really good and started to tail off in the second half of the season. It was more frustrating, but we were getting a little more attention out there."


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One reason for the added attention was the departure of Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski, two of the Devils' five leading scorers, via free agency following the 2006-07 season. That meant more offensive responsibility for Parise, something Couture is sure to face this season with the trades of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, two of the Sharks' eight leading scorers, to Minnesota during the summer.

The change in how teams were defending against Parise's line was obvious right off the bat during his third season.

"Guys start paying attention to you a little more," Parise said. "We were seeing top checking lines and top checking D. They were going against Patty (Elias) and Gomer (in the past). Now it's a little different when you're seeing (Ryan) Suter and (Shea) Weber every shift."

Couture was a Calder Trophy finalist last season thanks to his 32 goals and 56 points in 79 games. He said he hasn't noticed much of a change through four games this season in terms of how he's being defended, but coach Todd McLellan said that Couture playing with Ryane Clowe and Torrey Mitchell (starting Friday night when they face the Devils, Martin Havlat will take Mitchell's place on that line) results in tougher matchups than most second lines receive around the League.

"It's been spread around," McLellan said. "Cooch and Clowe and now with Marty there, that should be a strong line on any given night and they'll get their fair share of attention. Between Clowe and Cooch, they have to get it going."

Couture has just 1 assist in 4 games this season. Whether that's the result of greater attention from opposing teams or him putting too much pressure on himself in the early going, McLellan said all of that was talked about with Couture before the season and there are plenty of veteran leaders in the Sharks' locker room that he can go to for advice.

One of them is captain Joe Thornton. Much like Parise, Thornton slowly built himself into one of the game's best players after he was the No. 1 pick in the 1997 Entry Draft. Thornton didn't face the same type of expectations going into his second year, but he understands what it's like to be under the spotlight and doesn't believe it will be a problem for Couture.

"I expect he's going to get better each and every year," said Thornton, who cited Couture's 25 regular-season and 15 playoff games in 2009-10 as a reason to consider this season his third in the League. "The crazy thing is, expectations are higher. That's how it is in this business. People expect him to be even better the next year. He set the bar high and it's only going to keep getting higher.

"I kind of went into gradually. I think you just gradually begin to play against better players. He's really level-headed, great work ethic. He's a great pro."

Another parallel between Parise and Couture when it comes to following up a breakout year is a new contract. Parise signed a four-year, $12.5 million deal during that summer; Couture signed a two-year, $5.75 million contract this summer.

The change in personnel, the added expectations and the burden of a big-money deal didn't affect Parise. With Couture now facing all those things Parise battled then, it doesn't sound like he's letting any of that bother him.

"I just feel the pressure I put on myself," Couture said. "I don't feel any pressure from anyone on the outside. I expect myself to play well. That's what I care about the most. Statistics will come if you're playing your game. That's something I've always believed. If I play the way I'm capable of playing, I know the points will come. I haven't played the way I'm capable of playing so far this year. It's been a slow start, but I'm looking to break out here tomorrow night."

McLellan wants to see it, too. He didn't pull any punches about Couture's lack of production in the early going.

"The attention that's put on him now is much greater than it was at this year last time," McLellan said. "Not only on the ice, but off the ice, he has to learn to deal with those distractions. He's been well-prepared and well-versed in handling this. His play has to get better. He would be one we'd expect more after four games. He knows that, we know that, and it's our job to try to help them."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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