Exactly eight weeks since undergoing surgery to repair his broken right ankle, Mikko Koivu could be returning to the Wild’s lineup Monday night.
Officially, the Wild and its captain will decide after the morning skate, but all signs Sunday pointed toward Koivu’s return against the Calgary Flames. At practice, Koivu took part in every battle drill and all game situations, including retaking his spot on the No. 1 power-play unit, which he typically quarterbacks from the half wall.
At even strength, Koivu, the Wild’s first-line center for years, pivoted what could be labeled the second line with Dany Heatley and Charlie Coyle.
That’s notable because Koivu and Zach Parise have been joined at the hip on the first line since Parise joined the Wild last season.
At least for now (no lines are ever permanent), the Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville line will stay intact.
Koivu doesn’t have a problem with that. He just wants to slide in seamlessly to a team that is 13-4 -2 in 2014.
“It’s the coaches who make the decisions, and players, it’s our job to create chemistry with different players,” said Koivu, who broke his ankle Jan. 4 and underwent surgery two days later.
Koivu doesn’t think it’ll be difficult to gain cohesion with Heatley and Coyle. Both of them have played right wing on his line for extended times previously. Coach Mike Yeo loves the size of that line and says it’s “three guys that can control the puck, three guys that are really tough to defend.”
“I think it’s a matter more for myself to get on their speed so I can help them out,” Koivu said.
Koivu, whose 433 points put him five from passing Marian Gaborik as the Wild’s all-time leading scorer, should help balance out the lineup, Yeo said. In fact, in Sunday’s practice, Heatley and Granlund were moved to the second power-play unit with Koivu and Coyle residing on the first.
“I think you saw the way that they were moving the puck around today. It was crisp,” Yeo said. “We’ve been relying on the one unit more heavily lately, so this gives us a chance to have a little more balance.”
Despite missing 17 games, Koivu is still the Wild’s third-leading scorer (35 points in 44 games) and leads all forwards in assists (27). Nobody has more assists in Wild history, nobody has more power-play points.
He should especially help in the faceoff circle. Since his injury, the Wild has gone from a top-five faceoff team to 15th. At the time of injury, Koivu ranked third among NHL forwards in average ice time (21 minutes, 34 seconds a game), 16th in faceoff win percentage (.557) and seventh in faceoffs taken (888).
The trickledown effect of Koivu’s return means Nino Niederreiter will drop to the Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak line and Justin Fontaine will drop to the Torrey Mitchell-Erik Haula line. If defenseman Marco Scandella can return from a sprained knee, the Wild essentially will have its first full lineup since the second period of the second game of the season.
That’s when Coyle sprained his knee against Anaheim. It’s been injury after injury since.
“Finally getting Mikko back gives us a chance to get to our team,” Yeo said. “We feel we have more balance through our forward lines and our defensive pairings.”
The Wild has impressively survived extended injuries to Coyle, Granlund, Parise, Koivu, Jared Spurgeon and Josh Harding.
It says a lot about the Wild’s improved depth. In years past, it always seemed the Wild was a Koivu injury away from disaster, like in 2010-11 when he broke his finger and in 2011-12 when he hurt his shoulder.
This time, the Wild is 11-4-2 without him, with the core of the team now including Parise, Ryan Suter and veterans Jason Pominville and Matt Cooke.
Parise largely credits the youngsters, from Granlund, Coyle, Niederreiter and Haula to Jonas Brodin to, of course, red-hot goalie Darcy Kuemper.
“You always have your opening day rosters and what you hope for, and it never works out like that. You always have injuries,” Parise said. “In a weird way, a lot of players have benefited from guys getting hurt.
“Players have been playing more than they probably would have, players have been here that probably wouldn’t have been here. It’s always a tricky thing with younger players because you want to be patient and let them develop at their own pace and not put too much pressure on them. But in a weird way, we needed these guys to come through, and the injuries may have made us a better team. They’ve done a really good job developing quietly.
“Now that everyone’s healthy, hopefully they can maintain their level of play. If they do, that’s only a good thing.”