Saturday, February 09, 2008

Why We Value Koivu

I could have written this article two years ago after a certain playoff series and the "we" would have stood for the entirety of the Habs following.

I get the feeling that if I were to make a conservative estimate of who the "we" represents now, I could only account for myself, Tobalev and some of the loyal fans of Lions in Winter who we confer with on a regular basis.

In my weekly update I alluded to the fact that Koivu's popularity has been taking a nosedive. PR from the people who have always wanted him out has been ramped up and is turning once avid supporters into fence sitters over the captain of the Canadiens:

Finally, and perhaps most distressingly for me is the marginalisation of Saku Koivu. While the language issue failed to get him out of the way, his detractors have now turned his own willingness to help the team against him. I have been told, directly and indirectly that Saku Koivu has lost it, that he is becoming no more than a third line centre and that he has a discipline problem. I recognise that a penalty at the end of the game is a bad thing, but it's hardly a discipline problem. (Click here for full post)

I described the feeling of sensing Koivu's dwindling popularity as distress. I can't imagine the word I would have to use if we were to find ourselves without him.

So, before this goes any further, I thought I would start a campaign of my own - to remind Habs fans (starting with the readers of this humble blog) about why we value (or valued) Koivu so highly. No one item on its own, perhaps, is reason enough to keep Koivu, when you add up these qualities, I would argue that finding a similarly valuable asset would be a quick round of about 5-10 phone calls:

1) He gives effort every night

Not only does he give effort, but his effort is fruitful. UNlike a fourth-liner who makes the league based solely on his ability to give an energetic performance, Saku has the skill to team with his effort to create openings.

2) He is very strong in possesion

Thanks in part to being small, but mainly to his wide stance when carrying the puck he is very difficult to disposess. And, when he is dogged about it, no one can strip the puck from him (that's in the playoffs)

3) He thrives in every role he is given

Let's be honest, all we heard all summer was that Koivu told Briere he could f*%& off if he wanted to be the number one centre in Montreal, playing with Higgins and Ryder. Well as the season has worn on, Saku has accepted many different wingers and indeed many roles. Sometimes he plays babysitter teaching Latendresse and Sergei K the ropes. Other nights he gets to be on the ice with 4 defensemen.

4) He can make every winger on this team a better player

Every player, bar the three on the Eastern bloc line, has produced superior performances (and numbers) with Koivu at his side. You could call this coincidence, but in science you you call this proof. Ryder has been a 30-goal scorer because of Koivu. Higgins came out of Hamilton and made the leap to NHL-calibre scorer much quicker because of Saku. Latendresse scores when he gets the chance to play with a C of that calibre. Hard to argue with that, especially when lots of similar players to those three will be coming through in the immediate future.

5) He has incredible endurance

Anyone who harps on and on about Europeans running out of gas by playoff time may be right in lots of cases, but certainly not Koivu's. He rarely drops his scoring tempo over a season, if anything he picks it up. And, from what we've seen he accelerates into the playoffs.

6) When he has a "bad" season he is far from bad

If everyone is right (in question) and Saku Koivu is having a bad season, then we should consider he has 39 points in 54 games on pace for about 60 or so. In addition, he has been a first star 4 times already, behind only Huet and Kovalev. (Ahead of Plekanec!). A look back at the game reviews show he has been a significant factor in at least 50% of games thus far (that is one of the top forwards), win or loss.

7) He represents the kind of player we would like our youngsters to develop into

Look around the league. Which other centre would you want Plekanec or Chipchura looking up to? Daniel (money bags) Briere? Joe (house of cards) Thornton? Players like Koivu are rare. He wants to win every game. He plays like he wants to make that happen. And, he overcomes adversity and losses with grace while learning lessons for the next time. This is one of those things you call intangible. This is keeping Steve Yzerman around years after his 160 point season is behind him to mentor young centres.

8) He has seen how far this team has come

If any of those green newbies starts taking things for granted or patting himself on the back with the media in tow, Saku can tell them a tale or two about how the media once went gaga for Mario Tremblay as a coach in Montreal too.

9) He thrives in pressure games

You just can't judge Saku Koivu on a regular season. He is just one of those players you want on your side when losing a game is not an option. Consider that he had a 55-point season ahead of dominating the first round of the 2004 playoffs. Ditto his 62-point total before he owned eventual Cup Champions Carolina in 2006 (before l'incident Williams). Nevermind that whenever he steps into a knockout round robin tournament his team overachieves and he usually ends up top 5 in scoring. Dragging Finland to the final of the 2006 Olympics was probably the crowning achievement of his career, thus far.

10) He desperately wants to help Montreal to the same success as Finland

All his play, his contract negotiations, his interviews, and other behaviour belie how much Saku cares for the Montreal Canadiens. If Finland Olympics 2006 is the crowning achievement of his career, he wants to eclipse that with a Stanley Cup more than anything (and here!!!), which is more than we can say about any UFA we have approached over the last 10 years.

Finally, for those writing Koivu off as a first line centre or indeed as a member of the Canadiens altogether, I would ask them to look in the mirror and ask where they were on a certain Mr. Kovalev last season.

Jacques you may remeber saying this (quoted from Eyes on the Prize, April 10):
"He's a disgrace to the team and its fans, and he's mocked them far too long. He's not worthy of the jersey", said the coach.

And, after all, you may be writing this about Kovu in a few months:

The 34-year-old Russian (Finn) was coming off a tumultuous, sub-par season, one of just 18 goals and 47 points which saw him heckled by fans, shrouded by controversy, shredded by the media, demoted to the fourth line before being benched by coach Guy Carbonneau and, in his opinion, hung out to dry by the Montreal organization.

Now, 55 games into this season, Kovalev (Koivu) is the powerful locomotive pulling the Canadiens Express, the creative right-wing (centre) on one of the league’s premier lines with centreman Tomas Plekanec (left-wing Chris Higgins) and left-wing (right-wing) Andrei (Sergei) Kostitsyn.

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