Scoggins: Nobody should view Koivu as Wild's third wheel

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 18, 2013 - 11:14 PM
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Minnesota Wild's Mikko Koivu

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The narrative has remained unchanged since the Minnesota Wild executed a free-agency coup that triggered a July 4 celebration. The marquee trumpeted the arrival of a dynamic duo over and over: Parise and Suter; Suter and Parise.

Instantly, the Wild had a new face and big plans, which is understandable given Zach Parise's and Ryan Suter's elite talent, stature within the NHL and marketing appeal. But something -- or someone -- went missing in the hoopla.

"Number 9?" Wild coach Mike Yeo said.

Oh, yeah, No. 9, Mikko Koivu, team captain and all-star center. Remember him?

Until July 4, Koivu served as the unofficial face of the franchise. He was the Wild's best and highest-paid player and a rock inside the dressing room. The Wild was his team.

And now? Well, he's not necessarily the team's best player anymore. Or its highest paid. Or its marketing face.

But Koivu remains the captain and most important player on a team that begins a condensed season on Saturday with unbridled expectations. Nobody should view him as a third wheel.

"If I have questions, I go to him," Parise said. "It's his team. He's the captain."

As a leader, Koivu is intensely prideful but purposefully low key. He's fiery on the ice and occasionally terse with reporters. He doesn't mind sharing the spotlight because that's never been his thing anyway. He just wants to win. His ego can survive the love that greeted Parise, Suter and rookie Mikael Granlund.

"We're getting lots of publicity here, and that's a good thing," Koivu said. "It's about the team. I don't have a problem with that at all."

General Manager Chuck Fletcher wasn't concerned about how Koivu would internalize the heroes' welcome bestowed upon his new teammates, but he wanted to explain the financial component to Koivu before he signed Parise and Suter. Koivu is entering the second-year of his $47.25 million deal that includes five annual signing bonus installments of $1.89 million. That represented the richest contract in franchise history.

Fletcher called Koivu and informed him that the Wild had a chance to sign both free agents but that it would require "massive deals." Both players ultimately doubled Koivu's contract with $98 million deals. They also received $10 million signing bonuses. Fletcher initiated the conversation because he didn't want Koivu "to be caught off guard" by those figures.

"There were no issues, none whatsoever," Fletcher said. "He said, 'I'm happy with my deal and if we can add players of that caliber, it would be great for our franchise.' "

Koivu said he's not bitter or jealous of the money and attention his new teammates have received. He also appreciated Fletcher's gesture, calling it a "classy move."

"Mikko is so selfless that he will put the team before himself every day of the week," Yeo said. "He was so excited about the idea that he would never be afraid of somebody stealing his thunder or somebody stealing his spotlight because all he wants to do is win."

Koivu remains the glue to the entire operation. The Wild went 62-50-14 with him in the lineup the past two seasons. The team was 12-21-5 without him, including an 8-16-3 record last season after he was injured.

Koivu's value remains under-appreciated, though, because his game involves more substance than style. He's not flashy. He doesn't score a lot of goals. He refuses to take chances at the expense of his defensive responsibilities.

TSN in Canada recently ranked the NHL's top 50 players. Koivu didn't make the list.

"To me, Mikko is easily one of the top 50 players in NHL," Fletcher said. "I don't think he gets the recognition."

That's probably a reflection of his modest statistics and the Wild's struggles in recent years. Koivu has never scored more than 22 goals in a season or collected more than 71 points.

"Unfortunately, that's the sports world for you," Parise said. "Everyone wants to see the box score and who put up the numbers. People aren't overly concerned most of the time about who creates the play, and he's the one creating the plays."

Smart hockey people say the beauty of Koivu's game is in the details. The way he works and controls a game and is wedded to defense. They applaud his consistent approach and ability to make those around him better. That's not always sexy, but his game is so fundamentally understated that it's easy to take his contributions for granted.

"I have a whole new appreciation for how good he really is," Parise said. "I was kind of taken aback a little bit. No disrespect because I always knew he was a good player. But you don't know until you're with him."

They're together now for what the Wild hopes is a long time. A new era begins on Saturday, and Parise and Suter are supposed to elevate this franchise to new heights. But that won't happen without their All-Star center standing right beside them.

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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