He doesn’t always score a goal.
His screen time in the highlight reel is often minor.
And when it’s time to parade out the game’s three star performers, he usually isn’t invited.
But subtract the effect captain Mikko Koivu has on the action and the Wild might not be winners — a reality last season and throughout the 35-year-old’s stint in the NHL as one of its best defensive forwards.
“I don’t think he gets enough credit at all,” winger Mikael Granlund said.
Such is the epitaph that’s attached to Koivu’s career, a businesslike worker bee who grinds without much glory.
Winning defensive-zone faceoffs and suppressing chances for opponents aren’t typically the sequences that are rehashed around the water cooler the next day, but like the gears that crank behind the face of a clock, Koivu helps the Wild tick — and has for years.
Perhaps it’s unfortunate, then, that as he closes in on 1,000 NHL games, all with the Wild and as captain for much of his tenure, Koivu hasn’t received more recognition for the commitment he’s invested into an organization that has become one of the steadiest in the league despite not capturing a Stanley Cup.
The lack of public praise, though, doesn’t bother Koivu because he knows he has the respect and appreciation of his teammates.
“To me,” he said, “that matters the most.”
When he was growing up in Finland, Koivu focused on scoring goals like most kids do once they choose hockey.
But he was always responsible, wanting to leave all areas of the ice better than they were when he arrived. Combine that outlook with his serious and focused demeanor, and it seemed like the two-way center position was made for him.
Still, it wasn’t until he advanced with the sport, getting drafted sixth overall in 2001 by the Wild and beginning his first professional season in North America three years later, that Koivu began to realize just how much value could stem from his role — with the importance of faceoffs drilled in Koivu by current Oilers bench boss Todd McLellan, who coached the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League when Koivu skated with them during the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
“At that point with me, he was young and willing to learn and he had an impact on the game,” McLellan said. “I really enjoyed having him on my team.”
Once Koivu graduated to the NHL the following season, then-Wild coach Jacques Lemaire accepted the baton and taught Koivu how to execute the details to have success.
Those lessons, along with the experience that ensued and his competitive drive, are what Koivu attributes to his effectiveness.
“We all have our strengths,” Koivu said. “That’s why we’re in the NHL. So I think it’s just trying to do the best with your strengths.”
Dynamic on defense
Through 13 seasons, Koivu has surpassed 15 goals in a season six times and 50 points on seven occasions.
Aside from playing the most games (927), he leads the Wild franchise in assists (467), points (660), power-play points (232), shorthanded points (23), overtime goals (five) and multipoint games (144). Koivu is second in goals (193), power-play goals (57), shorthanded goals (10) and game-winning goals (33).
“He’s definitely under the radar when it comes to offense,” said fellow center and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.
His production dipped last season, to 14 goals and 45 points. So did his faceoff win percentage, to .514.
But Koivu has thrived on the defensive side of the puck.
“The best compliment that I could say of Mikko,” said former NHLer Alex Tanguay, who regularly battled Koivu when Tanguay was with the Avalanche and Flames, “is that if I was a player that was going to play on his team, I would love to play on his line because I know he does everything well on the ice.”
Last season, Koivu had the most defensive-zone starts among Wild forwards at 699, according to the website Corsica.hockey, and he faced the stiffest competition. Yet he still limited the opposition to 27.37 shots against and 1.91 goals against per 60 minutes of play at 5-on-5 — among the best outputs for regular Wild forwards.
Also, Koivu’s 265 faceoffs taken on the penalty kill were tops in the entire NHL and his 117 faceoff wins were second.
“He’s one of those guys who plays really smart, two-way hockey and always makes wingers better,” Toews continued. “He’s always going to get the tough matchups. He’s always out there making your life miserable when you’re trying to score, but he can also make you pay in your own zone as well.”
All about ‘D’
From 2015-16 through last season, Koivu’s individual defensive play is estimated to have banked the Wild four additional wins — which ranks first in the league among forwards.
And that’s what counts with Koivu: shining in the critical moments of the game to lift the Wild to victory, whether it be by scoring a goal or preventing one.
“I’d like him on my team,” said another past adversary, former Coyotes captain Shane Doan. “If you could have a pick of the league, he’d probably be one of the guys I’d pick.”
While he takes pride in being a 2017 finalist for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, which honors the top defensive forward, Koivu doesn’t need an award to affirm his productivity.
He knows when he’s played well, and the acknowledgment he merits from coaches, managers and his peers around the league as someone who’s hard to play against resonates with him.
“For sure that gives you a good feeling,” he said.
Leading with loyalty
This has become Koivu’s reputation, an unheralded defensive specialist who makes those around him excel, but his imprint on Minnesota and the NHL has more to it.
With this his 10th season as captain of the Wild, he’s one of the longest-running leaders in the league and among active players, only five have played more games with one franchise than Koivu — who has the potential to reach 1,000 as early as March.
“One thing I’ve always tried to be is that you can trust me on your team,” Koivu said. “We’ll talk, I’ll listen and try to help as much as I can. You can trust that you can feel comfortable to come talk to me. That’s not an easy thing to do in the hockey world.”
Although he’s had the chance, Koivu never has entertained the idea of leaving — cherishing a brand of loyalty that’s almost become extinct in today’s game.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to stay here,” said Koivu, who feels the Wild has offered him the “whole package” — an enjoyable lifestyle that his family — wife Helena and two children — likes and the chance to win.
Under contract for this season and next after signing an $11 million extension a year ago, Koivu feels he has plenty of years left to play but does want to evaluate on a year-by-year basis. And he envisions himself finishing out his career in Minnesota.
“I know there’s a winning team [here],” Koivu said. “There’s been changes now, but that doesn’t change the goal that we have.”
More to give
As long as he continues to play, Koivu’s legacy can evolve but the foundation already has been cemented — even if Koivu hasn’t drawn the same conclusion about his time in the NHL.
“I don’t know how people react to the game and me as a player,” he said. “I think there’s always going to be people for you and against you. That’s just sports.”
What is clear is that Koivu wants more, and that, too, is part of his personality — never being satisfied, even though he admitted he could be easier on himself.
“It’s a hard way of living, I guess,” he said. “But then I think that also pushes you forward.”
He’s not only motivating himself; he accepts the responsibility of elevating the entire team.
And once he does that, when the Wild is at the top, that’s when Koivu will feel he’s fulfilled his service to the franchise.
Until then, he’ll keep working.
“If you’re able to win, Koivu said, “after that I wouldn’t think twice that I had to do more.”