Mikko Koivu is the ultimate team guy. Everything’s “we” with Captain Koivu — when things are going well, the Wild center likes to talk about his teammates as a group, not individually.
But Thursday morning, hours before Eric Staal notched the 67th three-point game of his career, Koivu gushed over the Wild’s big free-agent pickup.
“It’s not just on the ice. Off the ice, it’s huge the way he handles himself,” Koivu said of Staal. “It’s not just the game. For me, he helps in a lot of ways.”
“In the room, on the bench, you have to believe whatever he says,” Koivu answered. “You know He’s been there and you know he’s at almost 1,000 games, so he knows what he talks about. He’s played with great players, he’s won [a Stanley Cup]. In my situation, it helps a lot on and off the ice.”
There are a couple theories why the 33-year-old Koivu, who has played with 170 teammates since debuting in 2005, is in the midst of a strong season. He has scored 12 goals and 29 points in 40 games and was ultra-clutch through the month of December.
First, obvious credit goes to linemates Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund. The trio has been the Wild’s only unbreakable line since the day after Thanksgiving. Together for 21 games, Koivu has nine goals and 21 points, Zucker has eight goals and 18 points and Granlund has 20 points.
Second, the addition of Staal has, in coach Bruce Boudreau’s words, “taken a little bit of pressure” off Koivu. For the first time in GM Chuck Fletcher’s tenure, the Wild has two big, strong centermen that his coach can toss on the ice in any matchup against any line.
Some nights, it’s Staal’s line scoring. Other nights, it’s Koivu’s. On some nights, like last week in San Jose or last month at the Rangers, it’s both.
“There’s nights when you’re not going, but it’s nice when there’s another guy behind you that can pick you up,” Fletcher said. “No one’s perfect for 82 games. In the past, it weighed on Mikko at times when we haven’t had that support for him. And the great teams in this league, they have at least two big centers to contain. I think they’ve really helped each other.
“Some nights, one of them has to do the hard work and the other’s getting maybe an easier matchup.”
Staal, 32, leads the Wild with 14 goals, 24 assists and 38 points. In 40 games, that’s one more goal than he had in 83 games last season for the Rangers and Hurricanes, two fewer assists and one fewer point.
Since Dec. 4, Staal is tied for first in the NHL with 22 points (nine goals) in 17 games. Twenty of those points have come in the past 14.
He says Koivu’s presence is one factor that led him to sign with Minnesota on July 1.
“Going into the summer, I was looking for a fit where there was another big, strong center to shoulder some load,” Staal said. “Mikko is a great player that’s a big, strong man that’s tough to play against, so for me, it’s perfect to fit in there with him in the top-6. I think it’s benefited both of us and balanced out what was already here.
“I think it creates matchup problems for other teams. How Bruce uses us, we both go about our business doing what we can to contribute.”
Koivu, the Wild’s all-time leader with 803 games, 412 assists, 585 points, 204 power-play points, 1,861 shots and 129 multipoint games, scored a career-high 71 points in 2009-10 and followed it up with a 62-point campaign the following season.
Those were Fletcher’s first two years managing the Wild. Koivu hasn’t topped 60 points since.
“He had some good years playing with [Andrew] Brunette and [Antti] Miettinen, but I think Mikko’s in a really good place right now both on and off the ice,” Fletcher said. “I’m just happy for him because he’s been a heck of a player for this franchise.”