It’s hard to imagine a time where Mikko Koivu wasn’t the Minnesota Wild’s Number One Center™. It’s not like he didn’t earn the title on his own merits. Since the 2003-04 lockout, Koivu has been a workhorse, combining elite defense with slick playmaking. That’s the kind of player teams fall over themselves to give top minutes to.
But another reason for this is that there have been virtually no challengers to Koivu’s throne. Look at the top scoring seasons for Wild centers since 2005-06, and you’ll see a lot of Koivu. He occupies seven of the top-10 seasons, and 10 of the top-25. This includes injury-shortened and lockout years!
Who occupies the remainder of that list? A lot of band-aids. Some were wingers playing off their ideal position, like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Others, like Eric Belanger, Kyle Brodziak, and Wes Walz, were third-line caliber players who played second-line minutes by necessity.
Filtering those players out, Koivu’s strongest competition came from Todd White and mid-30s Matt Cullen. Both capable of good seasons, for sure, but neither of them close to Koivu’s league.
This left Koivu as the focal point of the team’s offense, even though it wasn’t always the best role for him. At least not in recent years, when his point total fell from the 60-70 range of his apex to the 45-55 level he now occupies.
As his value transitioned from two-way force to dominant defender who could chip in offense, nothing changed. He continued getting some of the heaviest offensive zone starts on the team. He anchored the top power play unit by default. When the Wild needed a goal in crunch time, it was Koivu who took the draw.
That’s not to say that Koivu wasn’t up to the task. Minnesota went to the playoffs in each of the last four seasons depending heavily on Koivu. But there’s always been a since in Minnesota that the team would be better if they had a center emerge to take that burden off Koivu.
The Wild pinned their hopes on Granlund emerging as that player, but that didn’t work out. Granlund was unable to play defense at a high level as a center, and the added responsibility of the position capped his offensive value. He’ll likely be moving to the wing this season.
Fortunately for the Wild, they now have a backup plan. Eric Staal fell into the Minnesota’s lap in free agency, and his volume shooting and ability to drive offense makes him a fine option to take the mantle of Number One Center from Koivu.
This would finally put Koivu in a role he’s perfect for — a sentiment head coach Bruce Boudreau echoes.
He told the Star Tribune at the Minnesota State Fair “I think Mikko is a great number two [center]. He really reminds me of the way I used Kesler last year with Getzlaf being the number one. Mikko can be on a line that’s productive and can shutdown, I think we’re really doing a good thing.”
And we saw a taste of what Koivu is capable of in that role. Koivu started off last season on a line with Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter, and they were one of the most dominant lines in the league.
They controlled 57 percent of shot attempts and a whopping 64 percent of scoring chances. They started out the year with defensive deployment, but a spot of bad puck luck led to them getting more offensive zone starts for a spark. The line split up when that spark never came.
But while the results didn’t match the on-ice dominance, the idea was solid. It’s also an idea that Boudreau will likely take much further.
Let’s dig into this. Boudreau sees a parallel between Koivu and Kesler, so how did he use Kesler in Anaheim? Pretty defensively, it turns out.
Last season, Kesler started a whopping 41 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone. This was the fifth-highest in the NHL among forwards with a minimum of 1000 5-on-5 minutes, ahead of players like Ryan O’Reilly, Patrice Bergeron, and Jordan Staal.
Using Koivu that way would change the way the Wild have played the last few years. Instead of relying on the Ryan Carters and Jarret Stolls of the world to do the defensive heavy lifting, it would be an elite defensive unit that could dictate play.
This would also free up other lines to get offensive deployment, which is extremely important for their fourth line.
Without depth in experienced forwards, the strongest candidates for that line are prospects like Tyler Graovac, Alex Tuch, and Joel Eriksson Ek. It makes little sense to start them with the tough minutes the Wild previously gave to their fourth line. Koivu could free those prospects to ease their way into the league and enjoy some early success.
This shift in responsibility would also enable Koivu to be what he always should’ve been, a center who enters tough situations and tilts them in the Wild’s favor. Koivu shining in an ideal role will go a long way in the Wild’s quest to improve upon their disappointing season.