Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Elephant in the Arena

Koivu's Ice Time

Now that many of my peers have become syndicated members of Habs Inside/Out, I see even more need to express views that just don't get press – perhaps because they are overlooked topics, perhaps because they are difficult for people so close to the team.

Saku Koivu has started the season like a shot from a cannon (to borrow imagery from RDS). He leads the forwards in scoring and has been leading a line that now has 14 points between them in only 4 games.

The amazing thing is that he has done this with relatively limited ice time.

Time on ice
In the Toronto game, Koivu played a paltry 12:54, with 6:52 even-strength minutes, less than Kostopoulos, less than Lang. in fact, his even-strength playing time was the absolute lowest on the team. Obviously this is a bit strange for a player who looked dominant, scored three points and led the line of attack. all the more amazing is that 2 of his lines goals were produced during their limited even-strength time together.

You might excuse Carbonneau for resting Koivu to keep him at his most dynamic on the PP or to keep his veteran savvy on the PK, but Koivu has not been the number one option on either. In fact, he has been resting as much as anyone with the man down.

I would have dismissed the Toronto game as an anomaly, were it not for the very similar course of events taking place during last night's affair with Boston. In fairness, Koivu and his line did see an expanded role vs. the Toronto outing, but again they were third in line to Lang and Plekanec. In last night's game, he played 15:05 minutes in all, of which nearly 12:00 were even strength. But Lang played 17:22 and Plekanec played 21:18.

Stats suggest more playing time
I am aware that I like Koivu and his style, and that it may be what offends me is that Lang is taking ice time away from one of my personal favourites. In that vein, I took a long hard look at the statistics to see if they bore out my point of view or not – obviously they did, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this far down the piece...

So far, things have generally gone better during the periods where Koivu has been playing more. And, Koivu has made a case for his ice time with stats other than his goal and 4 assists, which include a +4 rating (highest on the team) – he has been on the ice for 8 goals for and only 1 against PP, PK or ES. In addition, he has been winning his faceoffs well – 39 of 70 so far (which, incidentally is a far cry better than Lang who we were promised would be top notch).

So subjective and objective analysis converge on this one, what gives?

The answer to that question is unclear.

To explain it all away. It is tempting to invoke the injury response for this question, but that would be erroneous since Saku and his line were actually the most utilised unit for the first game of the season in Buffalo, when they would have been at their least healthy. Since that time, they have taken a back seat to the Plekanec line on three occasions and have been the third in line behind Lang and even Lapierre on one occasion each. The same is true for the penalty box excuse (Koivu has been relatively calm with his hooking so far).

The only real explanation barring a very unlikely injury (having all seen Koivu play and excel so far) is that Carbonneau actually prefers Lang to Koivu.

Now, from evidence so far, there is no doubt that Lang makes an able second-line centre. But equally true is that Koivu has shown flashes of excellence in two of four games and that he and his linemates are all on scoring leaders. add to that all the statistical and circumstantial evidence from above.

So, the problem as I see it is that Koivu (finally been unshackled from Michael Ryder, and from Higgins if only for a short while) has finally got the opportunity to fulfill his offensive potential for the first time in near a decade. I believe that in these circumstances, time will show that Koivu is our number one consistent offensive force going forward – bold as it may be to make this statement in light of Kovalev's recent supremacy.

This is not a large scale controversy or anything (certainly not yet) – we are talking about 4 minutes on the ice. But, if it continues like this, it is precarious, because it risks marginalising our captain and the only player we are certain we can count on when April rolls around. It also puts Koivu's future decision to stay with the Habs at odds with his desire for a big role, tying us instead to an older and less emotionally invested Lang.

My suggestion (if anyone were to listen) would be to simply start using Koivu in shorthanded situations now and again and to get his line out there as the second choice in even-strength situations. This should bolster his playing time (and Tanguay's), allow the line to gel more and potentially lead to more of what we saw against Toronto.

Something to think about...

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