Logan Couture becoming reliable part of San Jose Sharks' lineup

The Calder Trophy debate is a healthy one this season, but for my money, Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks has a healthy grasp on the award right now.

His 18 goals are eight clear of any other rookie. Heck, his 18 goals are fourth-best in the entire NHL, period.

"It's been a lot of fun," Couture told ESPN.com this week. "Definitely didn't expect to have the personal success I've had so far. I've enjoyed it and hopefully the team can really get going now. We were inconsistent at the start of the year, but I think we're turning that corner now."

The Sharks have won three straight and are 7-3-1 in December after an inconsistent opening two months of the season. Leading the way night in and night out has been their 21-year-old rookie center.

"He's been our catalyst on our team to this point," Sharks coach Todd McLellan told ESPN.com. "I don't know if any of us would have predicted that at the start of the year, but it's been a pleasant surprise."

Among NHL rookies, Couture's 25 points lead the impressive Jeff Skinner of Carolina by one and his plus-9 rating is second only to Washington blueliner John Carlson.

Carlson and Skinner will continue to challenge Couture for the Calder, as will Colorado's Kevin Shattenkirk, Philadelphia's Sergei Bobrovsky, Anaheim's Cam Fowler and the flashy Edmonton duo of Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle.

Couture won't lie. He's glanced at other game summaries to see what his fellow rookies are up to.

"I've been keeping an eye on it lately because it seems like I get asked about it a lot," said Couture, who played his junior hockey with the OHL's Ottawa 67's. "But it's still early in the year."

Couture's game has staying power, though. He's not just an offensive force. He does it all. His plus-9 rating is testimony to a player the Sharks can trust at both ends of the ice. Not all rookie forwards can do that.

"Now on a nightly basis, we can use him in any situation, offensively or defensively," said McLellan.

"That's something I've always taken pride in, the defensive game," Couture said. "Ever since I was young, coaches have told me, `Play well in your own end and you'll get to play more in the other end.' That stuck with me."

Playing most of last season in the AHL with Worcester was also key. Unlike Skinner or Hall, who have jumped from junior to the NHL, Couture went the more traditional route and that's been beneficial to his game.

"It was big for me," said Couture. "There's only a select few hockey players that can make that jump from college or junior to the NHL like Taylor did. You have to be a special player to do that. I wasn't ready to do that. Playing four years in junior and playing last year in the AHL was huge for me. I worked on my game a lot. I played a lot of minutes in Worcester last year, got used to the pro game and learned a lot."

That experience in the AHL, said McLellan, is why Couture was able to earn a spot among the top two lines this season. The coach has paired Couture with winger Ryane Clowe for most of the season and the two forwards have really meshed. Clowe, one of my favorite players in the league, combines sandpaper ruggedness with soft hands. He has 30 points (9-21) in 33 games and is on pace to have a career season playing with Couture.

"I love playing with him," Couture said. "He's a very, very underrated passer. He's set me up a bunch of times this year with really nice plays. He's a big body with lots of skill, very underrated player in my mind. Hopefully we can continue to stay hot together."

"The two have a nice chemistry," said McLellan. "Clowey can keep some flies off of him when he has to. They've been really good together. And anybody else we've put on that wing, their game seems to have perked up, as well."

Life is good right now for Couture, who last month moved into a one-bedroom apartment in San Jose and is living on his own. His only concern? There's a team dinner around the corner with the rookies footing the bill.

"Hopefully it's not too big," he said with a chuckle.