Saturday, March 17, 2012

It's in the Bloodlines with Mikko Koivu

By Larry Wigge

It was a question that kind of caught San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan off guard ... but one he smiled and gladly answered.

In fact, McLellan through a curveball at me as he used a baseball term as an analogy.

"In baseball, they call players like Mikko five-tool players," said McLellan of those famous five-tool players who can hit for an average, hit with power, run, field and throw. "He's got all the tools. He can play the game any way on a particular night.

"One night, he can be a finesse player. The next night, he can be rugged in the corners. He can skate, he can shoot and he handles the puck well. He understands the game."

McLellan was in his final season as head coach at Houston of the American Hockey League in 2004-05, before he want on to join Mike Babcock's staff at the Detroit Red Wings when he coached Koivu. It was Mikko's only season that he spent in the minor leagues.

Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher said others are beginning to learn what he found out quickly from their 29-year-old center: "It will be great when the rest of the world knows what we know.

"You could argue quite persuasively that he's the best player to ever play for the Minnesota Wild -- truly our franchise player," Fletcher continued. "He has always been our best defensive player and he has been our top offensive player, our best faceoff man, our best penalty killer. Mikko's the whole package.

"You look at him at he's plus 10 and we're not a high scoring team, he logs top minutes for us, but the best thing is that he is going to be an integral part of building this team back into a contender."

Fletcher watched his team climb fast and then stumble, but most of it corresponded with injuries that kept him out of the All-Star Game and for the last 13 games.

This season, despite the injuries, Mikko has compiled 10 goals and 27 assists in 45 games. He also lead the Wild with the plus 10.

"He's irreplaceable," teammate Devon Setoguchi. 

Bloodlines always seem to be a key at the NHL Entry Draft. Former GM Doug Risebrough said it was Mikko's bloodline that caused the Wild to draft him sixth overall in 2001.

Koivu's parents Jukka, who was a defenseman and later coached at the Finnish Elite League level for TPS Turku and clearly had a firm hand in the well-rounded play of both of his sons, and mother, Tuire, who was a nurse, were supportive but stern.

Though he is four inches taller and better than 25 pounds heavier at 6-2 and 219 pounds, Mikko has almost always found himself in his brother's shadow -- not surprising considering that Saku Koivu ranks right up there with Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne as the greatest players in the history of Finland.

"All I wanted to do was play hockey, and if it wasn't for my mom and dad, I wouldn't go to school at all probably," Koivu said, laughing. "They forced me to do that, and I appreciate that now. My parents supported my hockey, but school was first -- trust me.

"Things were kind of tough as a kid -- and my friends and family were always there."

Things were especially tough because the Turku, Finland, native, always was in the shadow of his supremely talented brother, Saku, a legend in Finland and the Canadiens' captain from 1999-2000 to 2008-09 when he signed with the Anaheim Ducks as a free agent.

"We're really close, but he's 8 1/2 years older and because he's the most popular athlete in your whole country as a kid, it's tough, I won't lie," Mikko said. "Kids at school, they kind of knew who you were and everybody wants you to be your brother. I didn't really care what people thought, and we talked inside the family and I learned to live with it.

"It took a few years. It's kind of my time to play the game. It's going to be different. In a few years, he's going to stop playing hockey and maybe I won't just be considered Saku's little brother. A lot of the older Finnish guys will be leaving, and it'll be up to us younger guys to continue what they've done."

"The leadership just flows out of them. They're good people, and there's a competitive fire there that's truly special. It's all about the team," former winger Mark Recchi said. "In terms of scoring, playmaking and how good he is defensively, Mikko's got everything. He's evolved into one of the top two-way players in the league."

His philosophy --or rather his father's philosophy -- was to be in good position defensively and then that would put him good position offensively.

"The best forwards in the league are very good two-way players," Mikko said. "I don't think you can get away with being just offensive or just defensive in today's game, at least if you're going to get a lot of ice time.

"It's tough to play against those guys when you know they're very good offensively, but then defensively, they're in your face all the time."

It's that in your face mentality that Mikko Koivu has that makes you take notice -- that five-tool player that matters most.

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