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Mikko Koivu Excelled in His New Role

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Mikko Koivu played his way to a Selke-worthy year as the Wild’s defensive stalwart and third highest scorer.

Minnesota Wild v Los Angeles Kings Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Mikko Koivu, captain of the Minnesota Wild, had a career year during the 2015-16 season. He scored 56 points on 17 goals and 39 assists, his highest totals in points and goals since the 2010-11 season. Seeing as Koivu was already a few years into his thirties, most Wild fans expected that the Kaptain’s totals would likely fall off at least a little bit this season, especially as the acquisition of Eric Staal and new head coach Bruce Boudreau’s stated intention of using Koivu as a heavily defensive center meant the Finn was going to get fewer offensive zone starts and opportunities.

Instead, Koivu thrived. He outscored his totals from last year in both goals and assists, ending up with 58 points on the season (in two fewer games no less). Absent any other context, you could conclude that Koivu had a great year.

That would be unfair to the Finn. Add in a little context and it becomes clear that Koivu didn’t just have a good season, but that he put on one of the best performances in the league.

Let’s start with a usage chart from Corsica. The x-axis shows non-neutral zone deployments. The farther a player is to the left, the greater ratio of defensive zone starts he had. The y-axis is a measure of time on ice weighted by quality of competition. The higher up the skater is, the tougher deployments he received in terms of opponents he faced. The color of the circles are Corsi For % (CF%), with blue being good and red being bad. Lastly, the size of the circle is Time on Ice %.

Koivu can be found in the upper lefthand corner of the usage chart, indicating that he had the toughest deployments in terms of both defensive zone starts and in quality of competition he faced. Basically, Boudreau relied heavily on Koivu and his most frequent linemates Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker to carry the water on defense. Based on the shade of their circles, they weren’t mugged by the opposing teams either, with both Koivu and Zucker posting slightly positive CF% and Granlund posting a slightly negative CF%.

By the way, if you think that the heavy defenisve zone starts were the norm for the Kaptain, think again. Last season, Koivu started 56.81% of his non-neutral zone starts in the offensive zone. This season he started only 35.68% there.

This heavily defensive deployment freed up Koivu’s fellow centers, with only Eric Staal (he’s in the mess of circles with Charlie Coyle and Jared Spurgeon) barely starting more often in the defensive zone than the offensive zone at .07 shy of a 50-50 split. The other centers were protected a great deal because Koivu was able to handle the tough assignments.

Koivu was a great teammate in other ways too. Below is a With or Without You (WOWY) chart from Hockey Analysis that shows the effect playing with Koivu had on his teammates. The x-axis shows the GF% of Koivu’s teammates when they played with him. The y-axis shows the GF% of Koivu’s teammates when they played without him. The size of the bubble shows TOI with Koivu. The most positively impacted players are in the lower right quadrant and the most negatively impacted players are in the upper left quadrant.

As you can see, most of the team is grouped around the center right of the graph. It would seem that Koivu’s impact, while positive, is somewhat limited. Some players, like Zucker, clearly played well with Koivu but equally as well apart from him (by the measure of GF%). Others, like Granlund and Zach Parise (the small blue circle on the lower left of Granlund’s circle), clearly did enjoy an improvement while playing with Koivu. All in all, there are two important points to remember when looking at this graph.

  1. Playing with Koivu resulted in all but three players having a positive GF%, with Jason Pominville being the only player notably suffering from his time with Koivu.
  2. The team as a whole enjoyed a strong GF% year, so the positive impact of playing with Koivu is dampened somewhat.

Koivu’s domination and strong offensive production attracted national level attention this season. Koivu has been named one of the three finalists for the Frank J. Selke Trophy for the best defensive forward alongside Patrice Bergeron and Ryan Kesler. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Koivu will win the award, in part because of the late season slump likely soured voters on the Minnesota Wild’s strong season, but the status of finalist is richly deserved.

That pesky late season slump is also the only real area of criticism that can be levelled against the captain. In the month of March, the Wild had a record of 4-10-2, including a five game losing streak. The Wild’s captain didn’t exactly disappear during that stretch, scoring one goal and six assists in those 16 games, but the annual slump this team is seemingly fated to experience every year reflects poorly on every aspect of the team, including leadership. Koiuvu and his alternate captains, Parise and Ryan Suter, have not yet found a way to take their team out of these long funks, which is disappointing.

That being said, this year’s slump, like so many slumps experienced by this team and others in the NHL, probably comes down to goaltending more than anything. It would be unfair to pin the slump solely on the broad shoulders of our Finnish captain. He had a stellar year, one that should be incredibly encouraging to his coaches, his teammates, and the many fans of the Minnesota Wild. He has one year left on his contract, but I, for one, hope that the Wild re-sign Koivu. He has spent his entire career with the Wild so far, and I hope he finishes it here too.

P.S. I hope this article served as an adequate apology for my knuckleheaded article from November in which I ignored all context and stated that Koivu’s contract was the worst value on the team this season. I was very, very wrong.

Stats and graphics came from Corsica, Hockey Analysis, the NHL, and CapFriendly.