Walking around the State Fair four months ago, Mike Yeo didn’t mince words when saying he expected bounceback years from veterans Mikko Koivu, Thomas Vanek and Ryan Suter.
All were coming off down years, and with at least two of them — Koivu and Vanek — many wondered if we were seeing the beginning of a sharp decline.
Well, 33 games into this season, Koivu, Vanek and Suter are the Wild’s three leading scorers as the team comes out of the Christmas break. Saturday night, the Wild resumes its schedule by hosting the always-dangerous Evgeni Malkin and the struggling Pittsburgh Penguins.
In his 11th season, the 32-year-old Koivu is on pace for a career-high 72 points, Vanek is on pace for 27 goals and Suter, who ranks fifth among NHL defensemen with 19 assists, is on pace for a career-high 47 assists and 60 points.
That’s not bad, especially when one considers Koivu is coming off his least productive season (48 points in 80 games) since his rookie season, Vanek his lowest goal total (21) in a non-lockout-shortened season and Suter went through a torturous stretch last season where he was minus-23 in 21 games.
All three were key contributors when Zach Parise, who is second behind Koivu with .8 points per game, missed eight games because of a sprained knee in November.
“There’s a reason why the bar is high for these guys,” Yeo said. “Expectations are very high because they’re great players and they’ve done it year after year. Every player through the course of their career is going to have a down year, a down period, but it doesn’t mean they’re on the decline or it’s over for them.
“It could be confidence, it could be injuries, it could be a number of things that are going on that disrupt them from getting to the level they’re normally out.”
In Vanek’s case, he was getting used to a new team in the first half of last season and was dealing with the distraction of being the well-publicized witness in a federal illegal gambling case. In the second half, he was skating through major abdominal issues that ultimately required offseason surgery.
In Suter’s case, his father, Bob, died less than a week before training camp. He was affected emotionally for much of last season and needed this offseason to take a deep breath, clear his mind and reset.
In Koivu’s case, he came into this season healthy and feeling good on an ankle that was operated on two seasons ago. He changed his offseason workout regimen with the objective of getting faster.
“You need to keep up,” Koivu said. “The simple way to explain it is I can’t do the same thing I was doing for 10 years in a row. I shouldn’t do the same things that I was doing at 22 years old. I think the more different things you do, the better you can become. That was the purpose.
“My trainer’s the one who explained it to me, and it totally made sense and I ran from there. I felt a lot fresher coming into this season, and it helps to be healthy in the summer and not have any issues.”
Yeo said “hearing their motivation factor” during offseason conversations, “I had zero doubt Mikko and Suts would get back. And with Van, it’s all health.
“The three of them have been huge. Just look at the way Mikko’s moving. There’s a real push on his part. He’s making an effort to get more pucks, be more involved in the offensive zone, get in on the forecheck and create more turnovers. You see the same with Suts. There’s a push to beat somebody up ice and get more involved in the offensive zone.
“And Thomas is not a guy we normally count on defensively, but he’s improved so much this year, it’s allowed us to play him more in better situations.”
Vanek loves the mix right now between the way the vets are playing and the younger players.
“That’s what makes a good team,” Vanek said. “I said the minute I signed here [in 2014], one of the biggest reasons is because I thought the mix of the team was right. You’ve got your older guys, your young guys. We always talk about how the young guys have to grow and get better, but at the same time, your older guys can’t have much of a drop-off.
“I think last year at times, speaking of myself, it wasn’t good enough. This year, it’s been a little more consistent. There’s still some stretches I wasn’t happy about, but I think I’m better this year putting it behind me and staying focused for the next game. The key is we’re playing well as a team right now. We’re winning. But we have to all keep it up.”