DULUTH – The Wild captain is relaxed, happy and smiling. It’s been that way throughout training camp, quite the contrast for the normally serious, steely-eyed Mikko Koivu.
“You almost think, ‘Should I be more tense?’ ” Koivu joked last week.
But Koivu, drafted sixth overall by the Wild 12 years ago and now the longest-tenured Wild player, looks around the locker room and is optimistic going into the season.
He’s on a line that could be dubbed “Tres Capitanes,” as former New Jersey Devils captain Zach Parise flanks Koivu’s left and former Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pominville flanks his right. And Koivu sees a solid balance between youth and veterans.
“Culture wise, you see the guys, their work ethic on and off the ice, and how everybody takes care of themselves, that’s a big change for us,” Koivu said Sunday, an unconcealed denunciation of a few former teammates. “I feel we’re going in the right direction right now when you look at the young kids and veteran guys.”
It was a long summer for Koivu. It took awhile to get over the Wild’s first-round playoff loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, a series in which Koivu received much criticism for going without a point.
“You’re playing well during the year, and the downside at the end, of course it bothers you,” Koivu said. “If that’s the middle of the season, no one even remembers that. It happens at that point, you want to learn from that. Every day counts, and I learned that big-time last year.”
Koivu may be 30 now, he may be 40 points from passing Marian Gaborik for the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, but he’s still learning every day. He badly wants to lead the Wild to something special, and coach Mike Yeo believes the Parise-Koivu-Pominville line has that capability.
“Those are the guys, when the puck’s dropped and they go over the boards, all eyes go on them and that’s what you want,” Yeo said. “We have a great deal of leaders now. But when they step on the ice, they’re leading by example.
“We’re real fortunate to have that kind of character.”
Koivu and the rest of the line wasn’t happy with their game in Friday’s preseason finale in St. Louis. Koivu and Pominville were on the ice for all four Blues goals, Parise for three — not something you’d expect from three strong two-way forwards.
“We have the makings of being a good line, but it was a reminder that it starts defensively,” Pominville said. “We all work hard. The offense will come when we have the puck and take care of it.”
Koivu wasn’t with the Wild practicing or golfing in Duluth on Monday. He’ll join for Tuesday’s practice, spending an extra day at home with his fiancée, Helena, and newborn daughter, Sofie.
“It definitely brings another aspect to my life and makes you look at things a little different,” Koivu said. “Bad practice or bad game or one mistake, it’s not going to be the end of the world anymore like it was when I was younger.
“So far the change has been in a good way. It’s still fun coming to work and playing the game and being around the guys here. But I’m in a little more rush to go home now, too.”
Monday was a homecoming for Justin Fontaine, who played four years at Minnesota Duluth and won a national championship with the Bulldogs in 2011.
“The idea that you’re coming back and you just survived final cuts to stay with an NHL team, I think it’s got to be really exciting for him now,” Yeo said.
Fontaine still is uncomfortable with all the attention. The 25-year-old rookie faced a large contingent of local reporters after Monday’s practice and looked sheepish while doing so. He took ribbing from his teammates when the arena’s manager blared the horn after Fontaine scored during a shootout practice.
“It’s fun, though, coming back and seeing some old friends and my coaches,” Fontaine said.
Hybrid icing approved
The NHL will implement hybrid icing after the players’ union gave the OK on Monday. Officials can call icing if a defender reaches the dot at the nearest faceoff circle before an attacker.
The rule is meant to prevent dangerous collisions behind the net on touch-up icing.