MIkko Koivu is back. And we’re all happy about that. Fans who love Koivu get to see him play, and fans that hate Koivu (don’t deny that you are out there) have their whipping boy back in the lineup. That’s a debate for another day. Mikko Koivu is a good hockey player, and despite what Koivu-haters out there say, he is also a good captain. Naysayers bemoan his lack of scoring against top teams, and his apparent lack of physicality. Of course, there are many ways to lead, Koivu does his by doing the little things during a game, and if you’ve ever had the chance to watch the Wild practice, you see where the Finn does his best work. Of course, the average fan rarely gets to see the latter, and once a fan has made up their mind about a player, asking them to see the little things becomes somewhat of a tall task.
There is one thing that the anti-Koivu camp gets right, however, and that is the fact that he is not a top line center. Koivu never has been, and at this point in his career, it’s safe to say he never will be. He is not an elite offensive talent (his only elite talent is face-off ability), and he has been miscast in a top line role his entire Wild career. That has been a huge reason why the Wild have drifted between a poor Western Conference team and a playoff also-ran.
Much has been made of the Wild turning their season around right at the start of January, after an abysmal stretch to end 2013, losing six games in a row. The reversal of fortune not only coincides with the turn of the calendar but also the injury to Koivu, who went down in the Washington game on January 4th. This of course necessitated the sliding of Granlund onto the top line, and the results are so well publicized that they do not bear repeating here. The Wild went on a run, Granlund went to the Olympics and led (yes, led) Finland to the bronze medal, earning all-tournament honors in the process, and has returned to the NHL looking nothing like the player who was witness-protection anonymous last season, and who was minus-8 in the six game slide to end December.
Granlund had 12 points in January, three more in February (10 if you count the Olympics, where only Phill Kessel and Erik Karlsson outscored him) and had two more assists last night, his first game in March. 17 points in 20 games are first line totals, and Granlund appears to be rising. We had all been told for years after Granlund was drafted that he was one of the most creative players not playing in the NHL. Now Wild fans can see with their own eyes that he is perhaps the most likely man on the ice to make something happen.
Therefore it is good to see that Mike Yeo resisted the urge to hand Koivu his spot between Pominville and Parise, a line that really didn’t work. Pominville is a sniper, and can benefit from the set-up skills of Granlund, and Parise is a dirty goal grinder, just like Koivu when he’s playing well. In the end Parise and Koivu ended up being two players who were too similar to play together. Whether Koivu is a fit between Heatley and Coyle remains to be seen, but the Granlund-Parise-Pominville trio should not be touched for now.
Accepting a demotion is tough for any player, and Koivu is about as proud as they come. In this case, he also needs to be pragmatic. If he can accept the fact that Granlund is a better option for Minnesota’s top scoring line, the Wild will be a better team for it. After all, it has always been a fact, but it couldn’t be a reality until now.
There was an interesting moment during the Vancouver game after potentially soon to be former Canuck Ryan Kesler tripped Granlund and was called for a penalty. Kesler got right in Granlund’s ear, barking about whatever. A season ago, Granlund probably would have skated away with his head down. In this instance, he got right back in Kesler’s face and flashed a brief, but telling, “I’m better than you” smile. And why shouldn’t he? Kesler is stuck on downward spiraling Canucks team that missed their championship window and is facing the uncertainty of a mid-season trade. Granlund is 22, getting better every game and is leading a team to the playoffs. Granlund is better than a lot of people right now, including Mikko Koivu. As long as it stays that way. The Wild are going places.