Koivu helping Wild get through another Gaborik-less stretch
Not only can he lay claim to being the best Koivu in the league at the moment; he might also just be the best player, period. Surnames notwithstanding.
"I don't look at it that way," he said. "With a couple of guys gone and Marian [Gaborik] hurt, I've just gotten more ice time, more power-play time. When you're given those things, you're expected to score more."
Opportunity has come knocking, and Saku's kid brother, embarking on his fourth full NHL season at age 25, is proving to be smart enough, mature enough and talented enough to answer the door.
Remember, Brian Rolston and his 31 goals departed for the nostalgia of the Jersey swamplands in the offseason. Pavol Demitra and his 54 points were allowed to stroll away, as he signed a lucrative two-year, $8 million contract in Vancouver.
And the Wild's one authentic superstar, Marian Gaborik, he of the nagging "lower-body injury" (read: groin), seems destined to be dealt away, with repeated contract offers rejected and his unrestricted free agency next summer looming ever more ominously.
Minnesota was a tidy 24-2-3 in games in which Gaborik scored last season (he had 42 goals in all), so his high-octane presence seemed indispensible to aspirations of repeating as Northwest Division champions.
The idea of any team, much less the offensively challenged Minnesotans, coping -- no, thriving -- minus three of their top four scorers from 2007-08 would have earned you a one-way, straitjacket-included ticket to Happydale Sanitarium. Oh, crotchety old Owen Nolan was brought on board after a reinvigorating 16-goal season in Calgary, along with the dependable Antti Miettinen from Dallas and an old pal, Andrew Brunette, to help cope with the losses of Rolston and Demitra.
But it didn't, on the surface, seem like near enough.
Yet here they are, the last team in the NHL to suffer a regulation loss, perched atop the Northwest Division. In case you haven't been paying the slightest bit of attention, Minnesota opened the season 6-0-1 before dropping its first regulation losses over the past week to reach 7-3-1 on the season.
Not to fret, though. The Wild Ones weren't gonna go 81-0-1, anyway. And they were bound to give up a power-play goal sometime (Dallas' Matt Niskanen ended a 23-for-23 Minny penalty-kill run last week). Superb goaltending, the emergence of Koivu as a centerpiece and the defense-first safety net that cult leader and coach Jacques Lemaire meticulously sets up to guard against unforeseen gremlins has been the recipe for success.
But the difference-maker has undoubtedly been Koivu. Now the captain. Now the go-to guy.
Lemaire has been gushing about him to anyone who would listen over the past couple of seasons. Defensively aware (always a trait that'll elicit cryptic kudos from Jacques), Koivu has embraced the additional offensive responsibility. Twelve assists and 14 points are near the league lead in both categories. He's been in on slightly over half (14 of 26) of the Minnesota goals accumulated thus far.
Off the opening salvo of this, his coming-out-party season, it's not out of the realm of possibility to expect a fast-track into that elite two-way forward category, a la Henrik Zetterberg of the Red Wings, the gold standard for such players today.
"This guy can beat you so many different ways," Wild GM Doug Risebrough said. "With a goal. A huge faceoff win. A great pass. Back-checking. On the power play. The penalty kill. He might be a 'surprise' to some people in other cities, but certainly not to anyone here in Minnesota.
"I wouldn't say his demeanor is, 'This is my team now.' It's more along the lines of 'What can I do to help my team?'"
"I think that's the way centermen should play," Koivu said. "[Lemaire] lets us be creative, but we're always thinking about our own end. And that's the way it should be. That's how you win hockey games. If you play good defense, a lot of nights when you don't feel so good, or the team is having trouble, you still have a chance to win."
The reasons for this blinding beginning aren't nearly as simple as a one-man breakout, of course.
There's Koivu, naturally. The blue-chip pair of Brent Burns and Nick Schultz on the back end. Niklas Backstrom is following up last season (33-13-8, .920 save percentage, 2.31 GAA) with one that hints at being even more efficient. The penalty killing has been near-perfect (the Wild were the first team since the 1962-63 Leafs not to surrender a power-play goal in the first seven games of a season). Miettinen already has six goals (he had 15 in all last season).
A prevailing theory for Minnesota's hot start is that the younger the team (and the Wild did get more apple-cheeked after losing Demitra and Rolston), the better likelihood of the team buying into Lemaire's ego-suffocating mandate. This is an enterprise that needs everyone on board to work effectively.
"That's certainly a component of it," Risebrough said. "But I think what's continually underestimated -- not here, but outside Minneapolis/St. Paul -- is the simple fact that we have good players. Mikko Koivu is a good player. Brent Burns is a good player. Nick Schultz is a good player. Miettinen is a good player. Pierre-Marc Bouchard is a good player. Backstrom is a good goalie.
"Yet whenever we enjoy some success here, it's always 'the system.' Every team has a system, but with us, that seems to be all anybody ever talks about.
"This is still a very young group. What's happened so far? I'm being honest with you, some of it is unexplainable. There are highs and lows to every season. We haven't hit any real lows yet."
Right now, until something is worked out one way or another, everyone is being distracted by the Gaborik situation. If the Wild can somehow hang together, and if Koivu continues to carry the load so doggedly, it'll certainly make the trading of their franchise player, should it come to that, far more palatable.
"Ongoing," Risebrough replied, when asked about the talks with Gaborik's agent Ron Salcer.
"Ongoing," he repeated, when asked how confident he is in ultimately brokering a deal.
And the evaluation of the 2008-09 Minnesota Wild?
That's ongoing, too.
So far, they've been intriguing, if not entirely convincing. Eleven games does not make a season, nor a genuine Stanley Cup goaltender. But 7-3-1 has certainly made a lot of skeptics sit up and take notice.
An elite goaltender, an underrated supporting cast, a group that collectively chug-a-lugs the Kool-Aid and a burgeoning star for them all to orbit around.
No Rolston? No Demitra? No Gabby?!
Upon closer inspection, maybe it isn't so crazy Wild, after all.
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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