Minnesota Wild\'s Mikko Koivu, of Finland, celebrates scoring the winning goal against the San Jose Sharks in overtime of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, March 5, 2009 in San Jose, Calif. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Dino Vournas)
ST. PAUL, Minn. - The Minnesota Wild's transformation into a more aggressive, faster-paced team has begun.
Mikko Koivu is at the forefront of this, just as new coach Todd Richards wants him to be on the ice this season.
"He's probably in the top three among two-way centremen in the game," Richards said. "The thing I like about Mikko is he's big, he can skate, and he's got offensive skill. For me, he's got great assets that will fit very, very nicely into the way that I would like to see this team play."
Under Jacques Lemaire, the Wild were clearly a conservative club. Richards wants a stronger forecheck and a more proactive attack, and though he has insisted they won't abandon sound defensive principles, it's likely that fans will see a more entertaining product.
"We want to change the mentality," Richards said. "There's going to be games that we're going to lose for sure. We aren't going to go 82-0, but if we can make steps every game - even in the games that we lose - in the process of changing the mentality ... the results will take care of itself."
Koivu has blossomed into Minnesota's best all-around player, and with Marian Gaborik moved on, Koivu must be a bigger source of scoring along with Martin Havlat and Andrew Brunette on the first line. Koivu led the Wild with 47 assists last season, his fourth in the NHL. He was third on the team with 20 goals.
"Every player has their own style," Koivu said. "You always want to score some goals. That's obvious, but I think you can't change your style."
That goes for off the ice, too.
Minnesota's first-round draft pick in 2001, Koivu is also a top candidate to be named captain. Under the previous staff that honor was rotated monthly.
"I'm just trying to be myself. I'm going to do it the way I usually do things," Koivu said. "I'm not going to change that. Hopefully I can bring my thing to the team and help the guys. That's what I'm trying to do, but at the same time you've got to take care of yourself as well. Every guy leads in their own way and whatever's natural for you, I think that's the way you've got to go."
Richards isn't ready to name his leader, but Koivu was named captain four of the six months last season. He's the natural choice.
"It's something that we won't take lightly as far as the selection process," Richards said. "We'll take our time, just because we want to make sure we get it right."
Training camp begins Sunday, and the Wild's first exhibition game is Tuesday at St. Louis. With players taking part in an informal skatearound Friday morning, while Richards addressed reporters at a news conference at Xcel Energy Center, the sounds of sticks on the ice and pucks clanging off the glass in the background were reminders that the season has already arrived.
Outside, on a steamy summer-like afternoon, dozens of fans staked out spots in line with tents and camp chairs in anticipation of the launch of single-game ticket sales on Saturday.
Koivu, in an interview in the freshly painted locker room, expressed excitement about the fresh start but downplayed his significance in his typical laid-back manner.
"Everybody's a little nervous as well," Koivu said, thinking about the regime change. "I think that's kind of natural. I don't think we have to hide it. Probably it takes a couple days, a week or two weeks or whatever, to get used to it. ... I'm sure it will take a little time, but in the end I think it's going to be good for us."
Good for Richards, too. He served last year as an assistant in San Jose under coach Todd McLellan, who once coached Koivu with the Wild's minor-league affiliate in Houston.
"I really believe that Mikko's personality is going to mix very well with Todd's," McLellan said this summer. "I think Todd's idea of a leader and of a high-end player suits Mikko very well. I think the relationship's going to be excellent. He's going to very much like Mikko as a player. I know I did. There's going to be a nice marriage there."
Former general manager Doug Risebrough, in an exit interview with reporters last spring after he was fired, was brought up Koivu's potential to make the Wild go.
"He is the engine," Risebrough said.