As he watched the playoffs, Mikko Koivu realized he missed the game and believed he could still contribute to a team. He also felt good physically and conferred with those close to him whom he trusted.
Their message supported his thinking.
So Koivu found a new home in the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets, a one-year, $1.5 million deal that was announced Saturday in the aftermath of the Wild deciding not to bring back its longtime captain.
"Once you get the news that you’re not part of the plans for the upcoming season or for the future with the franchise you’ve been all your career, for sure it takes time to get used to it," Koivu said Sunday in a video call. "Everything you know is kind of there. So, it was hard. ... [But] having a new challenge, I think it’s fresh. As a player, as an individual, you need that – not just in hockey but in life in general – and that can be a good thing and that’s the way I look at it.
"It's a positive thing right now that there's a new chapter, new challenge, ahead of me, and [I'm] very excited about that and I think that can only bring you something good."
When he started talking to the Blue Jackets, his confidence in his decision grew.
In Columbus ther 37-year-old Koivu will fill a depth center role, slotting behind No.1 Pierre-Luc Dubois and the recently-acquired Max Domi.
Not only did Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen scout Koivu during his draft year while Kekalainen was working for Ottawa, but Kekalainen remembers a young Koivu hanging around when Kekalainen and Koivu’s older brother Saku played for the Finnish national team.
“I talked to Mikko at length,” Kekalainen said. “He’s very hungry to prove that he’s still a good player in this league.”
Since Columbus and the Wild broke into the league at the same time as expansion clubs, Koivu followed the Blue Jackets closely and monitored how they progressed. He paid even more attention once Kekalainen joined the organization in 2013.
With the team advancing to the playoffs the past four seasons and being tough to play against, Koivu had interest in Columbus and thought it'd be a good fit for him.
"You want to win," Koivu said. "I never got a chance to go far in the playoffs. That's my No.1 goal as an individual, and I think you realize that more and more once you get a little more experience and you see the teams [and] players having that success as a team and that's something that drives me right now and that's the reason why I signed with Columbus."
Koivu, who was drafted sixth overall in 2001, is the Wild’s all-time leader in games (1,028) and points (709) after 15 straight seasons with the franchise. A former All-Star, one-time Selke Trophy finalist as the league’s best defensive forward and first full-time captain in Wild history, he was the 55th player in NHL history to play his first 1,000 games with the same team.
It’s possible his No. 9 will be the first player jersey to hang from the rafters at Xcel Energy Center.
Although Koivu’s role with the Wild diminished last season, the Blue Jackets feel Koivu’s eager to show he can still supply offense. In 55 regular-season games, Koivu tallied four goals and 17 assists while averaging the fewest minutes (15:34) since his rookie season and holding down a spot on the fourth line.
“He didn’t have his best season last year,” Kekalainen said. “He had the knee injury the year before, and that bothered him a little bit this year, too, and gave him a little trouble with the compensating for the knee that had been injured.
“He’s working extremely hard to get ready for this season and bring that hunger to prove that he’s still a good player in this league.”
But getting that opportunity comes with unfamiliar territory since Koivu will be facing a wave of firsts, like calling an arena other than Xcel Energy Center home and suiting up in a NHL sweater that isn't adorned with a Wild logo.
"It’ll be different, but I see that as a positive as of right now," Koivu said. "Getting the message from Minnesota that you won't continue there, I think that was hard at first obviously. But once you kind of think about it, too, I think you're looking for the new challenge, new chapter, in your life and now I have that opportunity with the Blue Jackets.
"I'm very excited about that and can’t wait to get started there and get to know the players, the team, the city, the fans [and] all that goes into that. So, it's an exciting time."