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Zulgad: Mikko Koivu finally ends goal drought but Wild needs much more from their captain

Mar 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA;Minnesota Wild center Mikko Koivu (9) looks on during the first period against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Mikko Koivu’s goal-scoring drought is over. Finally.

The Wild center, who scored his fourth goal of the season in the Wild’s ninth game on Oct. 28 against Pittsburgh, got his fifth goal 25 games later in a 6-4 victory at Ottawa on Tuesday night. That also ended Koivu’s career-high pointless streak at 11 games.

“We talked, we’ve been gone through these things,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. “But it gets tougher (the longer it goes). You start to put pressure on yourself because you expect more. I’m hoping this is a jump start for him.”

That’s the most important question when it comes to the 34-year-old Koivu. Was his deflection of a second-period shot that beat Senators goalie Craig Anderson the jump start he needs to again become a consistent points contributor or was it a one-game blip for the Wild captain?

A 24-game stretch without a goal isn’t simply bad luck. It’s a disturbing trend. Especially when you consider Koivu isn’t a third- or fourth-line center who is in the last season of his contract and can be easily jettisoned if it’s decided he’s in full decline.

Koivu is one of the Wild’s top two centers — he was on a line with Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund on Tuesday — and also is used on the power play.

It might be misguided, but the Wild consider themselves to be Stanley Cup contenders and, if that’s the case, Koivu can’t disappear as a goal-scoring options for lengthy stretches and seemingly find ways not to score.

That was the case on Saturday when he somehow failed to beat Oilers goalie Cam Talbot, despite the fact he had the opportunity to deflect the puck into a half-empty net. Instead, the puck hit the post and caromed right back to Talbot in a 3-2 loss that broke the Wild’s four-game winning streak.

The Wild followed that defeat with a 4-1 loss on Sunday in Chicago before breaking out of their funk Tuesday. In typical Wild fashion, they made life difficult on themselves by falling behind 3-1 in the second period before rallying with goals from Chris Stewart and Koivu to tie it.

Koivu is in his 13th NHL season, all with the Wild, and is coming off a productive 2016-17 season in which he had 18 goals and 58 points in 80 games and finished as a plus-27. The goal total was his highest since he had 22 in 2009-10 and his point total was his best since he registered 62 in 2010-11. His plus-minus total was easily a career high.

Koivu benefitted from a few things playing his first season under Boudreau. He spent much of the year on a line with Zucker and Granlund — they haven’t played together consistently this season — and the trio often thrived. The addition of center Eric Staal as a free agent also seemed to ease the pressure on Koivu. Koivu ended up as one of three finalists for the Selke Trophy, which goes to the NHL’s top defensive forward.

All of this was why general manager Chuck Fletcher decided to give Koivu a two-year, $11 million contract extension this past September. This despite the fact Koivu had one-year remaining on the seven-year, $47.25 million deal he received in 2010. The new deal will kick in next season and Koivu’s salary-cap hit actually will drop from $6.75 million to $5.5 million in 2018-19.

Nonetheless, when the deal was agreed upon, one had to wonder why there was any rush? Why not see how Koivu’s season went and then make a decision on his future. The NHL salary cap doesn’t exactly skyrocket on a yearly basis and there should have been no hurry to extend the contract of a player who will turn 35 in March.

Boudreau had gone out of his way of late to protect Koivu, even pointing out after Saturday’s game that he had similar statistics at this time last season. Koivu had nine goals and 21 points through 34 games in 2016-17. He also was a plus-15. This season, it’s five goals and 16 points in 34 games. He is a minus-6.

“I’m sure he’s frustrated,” Boudreau said Saturday after the loss to the Oilers. “He’s a guy that A, has a lot of pride and B, is a really good player. The one thing about Mikko is, even if he’s not scoring, he’s defending and competing really hard. So I mean we all want to see him succeed in scoring. I know it’s wearing on him.”

Boudreau’s attempt to defend Koivu as a hard-working defensive center might be OK if the Wild didn’t need point production from him and he could be relegated to a bottom six spot.

But that’s not the case.

The Wild still see Koivu as a top center. That means he must provide points. His goal on Tuesday was a start but it now must be followed by far more. Otherwise, there will be plenty questioning the decision to give Koivu that contract extension.

 





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