There’s no shortage of speculation during the off-season. Some of it will seem logical and be disregarded quickly, like the Sharks putting goaltender Antti Niemi on the market in order to make a move for Ryan Miller. And other rumors will seem impossibly ludicrous and be correct, like top free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter both going to the Wild in 2012.
So, speculation that the Wild may trade or use a compliance buyout on captain Mikko Koivu shouldn’t be all that shocking. But many fans would have a difficult time swallowing the loss of the team’s all-time point leader and captain. (The team may also have difficulty with a trade given the center’s injury history, that he’s slowing down a bit, and that his contract is staggered so that “he receives $5.4 million in actual salary next season and in 2015-16, but jumps to $7.29 million in 2016-17 and a staggering $9.18 million in 2017-18.” (His cap hit is $6.75 million annually.)
Koivu is one of those players whose stats are never that gaudy, but seems to have that intangible something you notice when watching him play night after night. National broadcasters often seem middle of the road on him, while fans and other players seem to have very high regard for Koivu. So what’s going on here? Instead of speculating on what a move would look like, let’s take a look at what he did do this season.
The trade/buyout speculation stems primarily from another poor postseason performance on the stat sheet. Koivu only registered a goal and six assists in 13 postseason games this year. The team clearly needs more from its captain, even if he was slowed a bit by mid-season ankle surgery.
Looking back further, Koivu’s 2013 postseason was an even bigger disaster. The team was eliminated by Chicago in five games and Koivu didn’t register a single point. His Corsi For was a miserable 34.7%. And while the Wild were wildly outmatched in the series, Koivu Corsi For Relative was -9.2%, a significant step down from the rest of the team.
A big part of those numbers? Tough competition. His QoC TOI% was 30.5%. But that’s the role on a top line center. You need your top center, especially a player with a cap hit of $6.75M, to be able to play top competition and still score.
Usage, Usage, Usage
However, if we start to dig in a bit, it’s pretty clear to see that how coach Mike Yeo is using him has a big effect on Koivu’s numbers. Koivu is a defensive player and he is used as such. The only forward in the 2014 playoffs who has faced tougher competition is Jonathan Toews. (Koivu’s QoC TOI% in the 2014 postseason is 31%, tied for second with Charlie Coyle, Marian Hossa, and Bryan Bickell. Toews is at 31.7%.)
As we dig through some comparisons, it’s notable that Koivu’s 31% QoC TOI% is up from his regular season numbers. He’s being deployed against tougher competition more often than he is during the regular season, so it could be expected that we would see a dip in point production. For Koivu, that could be interpreted as both the opposition putting top lines out against him and, at home, being put on the ice to shut down top lines.
On that same front, using his deployment to circle back to point production, Koivu gets favorable zone starts, which makes sense as he’s always centering one of the top two lines and led the team in faceoff win percentage. If I can detour for a moment to point out his value in the faceoff circle: He was at 56.7%, sixth among players who took at least 50 faceoffs and second among players who took at least 100 faceoffs. As of May 26, he has taken the sixth most faceoffs in the playoffs, with every player above him being on a team that made it to the conference finals. He also has the fourth most faceoff wins in the postseason, with, again, everyone above him making it to the conference finals.
Back to the point, his zone starts echo the initial point on Koivu being used more defensively in the postseason. Koivu got fewer favorable zone starts in the postseason compared to the regular season. His ZS% dropped from 60.1% (+15.4% relative) to 55.8% (+9.7%).
You have to be careful with that stat as the regular season saw the team injured frequently and the acquisition of Matt Moulson gave the team two full top lines that could be deployed for key offensive zone starts, especially after Granlund took over centering a line that featured Parise. Furthermore, zone starts are tricky and are often shown to have a small effect after ten or so seconds. Nonetheless, we’re starting to get a clearer picture of how Yeo was using Koivu during the playoffs and what the expectations of him were while he was on the ice.
Koivu can be deployed defensively all the team wants, but he still needs to help get points on the board. A top line center can’t play the kind of defense-only game that is more acceptable of a third line center.
Let’s look at Koivu’s P/60 in some different situations, since part of his appeal is that he’s a top line center who plays both power play and penalty kill.
There’s no doubt his production has down the last two postseasons. But a closer look, while it doesn’t hand any conclusions over on a platter, may point to the combined shift in QoC TOI% and ZS% having some effect on what may otherwise be a smaller drop off in production.
The biggest drops are at even strength and all 5-on-5 situations. The drop off is less significant when the score is close, on the power play, and short-handed. Close and power play scenarios are situations in which the team may be trying to get Koivu out there more often and in hopes of scoring, instead of playing a shut down role.
Pucks in the net is, of course, the goal, but his Corsi For in the playoffs this year reveals that while he is being deployed defensively he is still managing to provide a significant offensive threat. In the 2013 playoffs his Corsi was a shockingly low 34.7%. This season it was 58.7%. Remember, that’s with a QoC TOI% of 31%.
In fact, 58.7% is higher than he was at during the regular season this year (56.1%), last year (56.3%), or the year before that (45.4%). So, while he wasn’t scoring, he was creating offense and demanding that opponents play top lines against him. That’s significant, because they aren’t just putting their top lines out against an offensive war horse who doesn’t play D, they’re being forced to play them against a player whose specialty is his defensive play.
Here’s a more amorphous stat, but one that speaks, again, to the role that Koivu plays: He averaged 20:31 TOI in the playoffs, that’s 23rd among all forwards, the most on the team, and seventh among forwards on teams that made it out of the first round.
Those players ahead of him from teams that made it out of the first round: Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, David Krejci, and Patrick Kane. He’s playing minutes for the Wild that the elite players in the league are playing on other teams.
Interestingly, to digress for a second, only two of those eight players were on a team that made it out of the second round. In fact, only four of the top 30 are on teams that made it to the conference finals, which maybe speaks a bit about teams that are able to spread out the workload (or it may just highlight that teams who are playing from behind and in an offensive mode are really leaning on their top forward lines).
During the regular season he averaged 20:56, eighth among all forwards. In the 2012-13 playoffs he averaged 20:30, 27th overall in the playoffs and tops on the Wild.
So was the 2013-14 postseason déjà vu for Koivu? Not hardly. His abysmal 2013 postseason can be attributed to a slump, yes, but also being on a team with only one top line. If Koivu is going to be deployed defensively as the QoC TOI% and ZS% (and just watching a game) suggest he is, then the team needs the depth scoring that it got in the 2014 playoffs, where Koivu’s numbers improved significantly. His Corsi For across those two years sums it up nicely: 34.7% in the 2013 playoffs vs. 58.7% in the 2014 playoffs.
An analysis of his point production would eclipse the fact that he’s playing solid defensive hockey on a team that was able to clamp down on teams, especially at home, to keep games close. This was a defense-first team all season, especially with the goaltending problems they experienced, and Koivu was a key part of that style of play.
Had Koivu’s point production been higher, it might have been a different story for the Wild, but it wasn’t made easy for him and he played the role that was handed to him. He spent a significant amount of time early on playing with Jason Pominville and Matt Mouslon (later moving toward lots of time with youngsters Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter) — who struggled to produce themselves, despite being on the ice with a great puck distributor.
No, Koivu didn’t produce offense at the rate he normally does and that, ultimately, the team needed him to. But that is at least, in part, due to the fact that his strong defensive play demanded a tougher role for Koivu, a role that was crucial to the Wild’s relative success this postseason.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.