Mikko Koivu, Just a Checking Line Center?

All it took was Erik Haula scoring a few goals and from the bowels of the internet came a clamor for him to be the 2nd line center. Haula is no doubt talented, but he would be better served spending a full season as the 3rd line center. He can exploit his speed against weaker talent and be a workhorse on the PK where he will no doubt see lots of shorthanded opportunities. Ger Devine addressed this issue in his Wild About Numbers article a few days ago.

So, you can imagine my shock when Koivu speculation usually reserved for Hockey Buzz, HF Boards whine threads, and twitter trolls, made its way to the lips of the Star Tribune's esteemed beat writer, Michael Russo. Eager to get into the spirit of the provocative world of sports talk radio, Mr. Russo, on Dan Barreiro's show, could hardly contain his glee as he dropped the bombshell that the Wild should look to trade Mikko Koivu this summer.

Now to be fair, hockey is a business, and there are times you move big contracts and popular players to make room for younger cheaper players. Mr. Russo could make a solid argument that the emergence of the young centers makes Koivu movable in the right deal. But, Mr. Russo doesn't make that argument. He instead asserts that Koivu has slowed and is little more than a checking line center at this point.

Sadly, on both the radio and in the newspaper, Russo offers little evidence to back up this statement. He simply asserts it is true. He does offer up lack of production in the playoffs, but making grand projections from such a small sample size is inane. By this standard, Sidney Crosby is little more than a checking line center. Of course, some in Pittsburgh are indeed calling for Crosby to be traded just as Mr. Russo tells us that some speculate that Koivu should be traded. Crosby, by the way only had 2 more assists than Koivu while playing alongside Malkin.

Speaking of numbers, lets look at the actual numbers. As I pointed out earlier, Ger broke down Koivu's stats pretty impressively, so no need to rehash all of that. But, I would like to point out a few other stats. When Granlund was paired with Parise they put on a pretty good show. There was a perception that this was the Wild's best scoring line since Gaborik and Demitra. I made the case at the time that Parise/Koivu were just as productive and people were focused too much on the most recent success. Well now I have the numbers to back up that claim. GF20 is the number of goals scored by the team at 5v5, per 20 minutes, when a certain player or players are on the ice. By having it as a rate it equalizes for playing time. When Koivu and Parise were on the ice together the GF20 was .802. When Granlund and Parise were on the ice together the GF20 was .736. Now in a moment I will make the case that points don't tell the whole story, and that is certainly the case here. I for one am just as comfortable with Granlund on that line as I am with Koivu. But, what I think is important to take away from this is that what was widely believed to be the case, simply wasn't backed up by the facts.

So the crux of the argument is Koivu's postseason play. And sure 7 points for Koivu was a little disappointing. Of course 7 points for Granlund was amazing and 7 points for Haula was an "I have arrived" statement. Before I dive into the numbers again let me make a small point about the playoffs: Great players face great players and something has to give. See: Crosby. Often 3rd and 4th line players produce because they face the weaker competition. When Chicago's 3rd and 4th lines ran roughshod over the Wild last year, it was a testament to their depth. When the Wild's 3rd liners step up this year, it's argued that it's time to trade and demote top players. Imagine anyone making the argument Toews should be traded because Bickell outscored him. In a game of inches the difference between the hero and the goat is well.. inches. And I get it, sportswriters are telling stories, selling the drama, and creating the hero and the zero is part of that.

What I don't understand is why sports writers have been so averse to advanced stats. Every single one of them knows and understands that goals don't just happen. You have to break out, pass, pressure, cycle, etc. What advanced stats tells us is who is doing all the right things to score, while keeping the other team from doing the right things to score. That's it. The problem, for sports writers it seems, is that advanced stats tells us that the actual scoring of the goal comes down to a lot of luck. And while writers can talk about "puck luck," it's a narrative killer. Consider a missed chance Mr. Russo talks about- Koivu having an open net and the shot gets blocked. What needs to be understood is that that chance happened because of all the good things Koivu and his linemates did. That it was blocked, was largely out of his control. If the defensive players screws up, Koivu is the hero. He didn't and now he is alleged trade bait. Yes skill matters, and some players will make plays others can't. But sometimes goalies and defensive players do the same. If you do the right thing enough you eventually get rewarded. Unfortunately, playoffs are such a small sample size that some players never see luck swing their way.

This, lack of luck, is exactly what happened to Koivu in the postseason. In advanced stats this is measured as PDO. PDO is the combined shooting% and save% when a player is on the ice. With some exceptions, this almost always trends to 100%. Now PDO on it's own doesn't tell you everything, but in context it helps explain why certain players over-performed and others under-performed. Koivu's PDO of 94.3 is 17th worst in the playoffs. If you up the minimum to 10 games only Richards and King were worse. At the same time his Corsi For% of 58.7% is 8th best in the league and his Quality of Competition was the 5th most difficult. So Koivu put up monster possession numbers, while facing top notch competition, but just couldn't buy a goal.

That's the narrative Mr. Russo should be selling. Throw in that he held Captain Clutch to zero points in 3 home games while also creating scoring chances and drawing penalties. Talk about his celebration after the Spurgeon goal that revealed that Mr. Intense was having fun too. This was a Koivu that was working hard and enjoying the team's success, a success that he was a huge part of. That's the Koivu I saw in the playoffs, and that's what the numbers show.

No one is perfect, last May I declared Spurgeon would be best suited as a 3rd pairing defenseman. I was very wrong. Considering all the evidence, by declaring Mikko Koivu just a checking line center, some would say that Mr. Russo is very wrong.

The opinions posted here are not those of Hockey Wilderness

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