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In Defense of Mikko Koivu

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The Kaptain is featuring as a favorite topic in the grumblings of fans, but it’s not really deserved.

NHL: JAN 13 Jets at Wild

The Minnesota Wild are struggling badly this season compared to last. Instead of fighting for a top three spot in the entire league, the Wild are fighting to hold onto a wild card spot in the West. Last season, the Wild were second in the league in goal scoring and seventh in goals allowed; this season they are currently 11th and 12th respectively. The dominant Jason Zucker - Mikko Koivu - Mikael Granlund line of last season has regressed to a solid but not especially remarkable trio. On a superficial level, it is easy to blame Koivu as the reason for that line’s lack of continued outrageous success. After all, both Zucker and Granlund remain among the team leaders in scoring, enjoying high shooting percentages and good rates of shots attempted. Koivu, on the other hand, has suffered a drop of nearly 7% in shooting percentage and his scoring has declined as a result.

Adding to the pessimism surrounding Koivu is the Wild’s struggles in general. The team has struggled to string together stretches of games with high levels of effort and scoring. Even play consistently throughout the game has eluded them for much of the season. When a team struggles, it has to hang somewhere. Most fans aren’t ready to suggest that head coach Bruce Boudreau is to blame. His winning pedigree and vocal frustration with the very same things that fans complain about see to that. So the doubt and blame instead get shifted to the team’s front office and to the team captain, Mikko Koivu.

Koivu isn’t at fault.

At least, not to a degree that makes him deserving of the scorn being directed his way, whether it takes the form of calls for “stripping the ‘C’”, calling his extension a huge mistake, or wishing for the Wild to trade him away. Koivu is continuing to be what he has been for several seasons now: a strong two-way forward that handles some of the toughest assignments in the entire NHL.

http://www.hockeyabstract.com/playerusagecharts

Take a look at this player usage chart of the Wild. The x-axis depicts offensive zone deployments. The y-axis shows quality of competition faced. The size of the circle is time on ice per game, and the color of the circle indicates Corsi For Percentage relative to the rest of the team (CF% Rel). That’s Koivu over there in the top left corner, indicating he’s facing the best players on the opposing teams and he’s doing so from the defensive zone more often than not. His CF% Rel is good. Not the best on the team, but good. Considering who he’s facing on the ice, it would be a success if he was merely treading water in terms of puck possesion, and yet he’s still improving the team’s overall puck possession when he’s on the ice.

His goal scoring is down, but Koivu is on track for roughly the same number of assists as last year, so his being on the ice isn’t hurting Granlund’s and Zucker’s goal scoring. His shooting percentage should climb back up during the remainder of the season, though not to the 12.9% he shot last season. His career shooting percentage has been 9%, which would see him finish in the 10-12 range in goals scored. Not ideal for your second line center, but on a team that is still hurting for a top six center to replace him, Koivu is a more than acceptable stand in due to his many other strengths.

It’s frustrating to see Koivu’s game seemingly take a step back, but in many ways he is still playing at a high level. Unfortunately, one of the most visible aspects of his game, goal-scoring, has suffered this season. It makes it easy to suspect the rest of his game might be on the decline as well. The reality is that Koivu is still an excellent hockey player that is improving the chances of his team to win, even if he isn’t the one to be scoring the game winning goal.