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Koivu brothers doing Finland proud

Friday, 10.24.2008 / 11:00 PM / Columns

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

To explain the early season success of the Montreal Canadiens and Minnesota Wild, you don't have to go too far from the house of Jukka and Tuire Koivu in Turku, Finland.

Being the sons of hard-working parents -- a hockey coach and nurse -- Saku and Mikko clearly understood you have to work hard to achieve your dream. Now, both are leading their teams -- becoming the first brothers to be captains of their respective clubs since Brian (St. Louis) and Darryl Sutter (Chicago) from 1982 to '87.

Saku had goals in 3-straight games and 3 goals and 6 assists in 6 games to lead Montreal, while Mikko was leading Minnesota with 1 goal and 8 assists in 4 games.

And both teams had yet to lose a game at that point.

Though he is 4 inches taller and better than 25 pounds heavier, Mikko has almost always found himself in his brother's shadow -- not surprising when you consider that Saku Koivu ranks right up there with Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne as the greatest players in the history of Finland.

"Saku is 8 1/2 years older. I remember when he was drafted in the first round (No. 21 in 1993) I was 10. He left home when I was 11 and I won't lie, it was tough trying to live up to him because he was the most popular athlete in your whole country as a kid," Mikko said a while back. "Kids at school ... everybody ... wants you to be your brother.

"Now that I was also a first-round pick (No. 6 in 2001) and have been in the NHL for a while, I kind of look at it like I've established my own identity and it's kind of my time to play the game."

Mikko came into his own last season, his third in the NHL, especially in the playoffs when he had 4 goals in just 6 games. He became a go-to guy offensively and captain and leader this season after the departure of veteran forwards Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra.

Previously he was a defensive role player, a byproduct of the tutelage of his dad, who was a defenseman and later coached at the Finnish Elite League level for TPS Turku. Being well-rounded at both ends of the rink was first and foremost on the minds of both Koivus.

Saku's play is punctuated by speed and shiftiness. Mikko, who is bigger and more physical, is fast becoming one of the 5 or 6 best young players in the game with his size, speed and grittinesss.

Playing fast, responsible and productive. That's obviously the Koivu way.

Quenneville a turncoat? -- I looked Joel Quenneville straight in the eyes and tried to keep a straight face when I said, "Joel, all those years coaching in St. Louis, I thought you hated the Blackhawks."

"Coach Q," after parts of 8 seasons coaching the Blues and 4 behind the bench in Colorado, didn't want anyone to get the wrong impression before he coached his first game behind the Blackhawks' bench -- in St. Louis no less --, after replacing Denis Savard just 4 games into this season.

"Hey, wait a minute!" he urged. "You're talking to a Windsor kid. I grew up in a neighborhood where all the other kids were either Detroit or Montreal fans. Not me. I loved the Blackhawks. When we were playing ... I was Bobby."

This defensive defenseman for 13 NHL seasons with Hartford, Washington, New Jersey, Toronto and Colorado who scored only 54 career goals couldn't be referring to Bobby Hull now, could he?

"Yeah, that Bobby," Joel chuckled.

Then, he added, "I always loved the quaint dimensions at Chicago Stadium and the crowd and that horn. You always knew it was going to be an exciting game in Chicago. Last year, with all those young kids, I could feel some of the same energy in United Center."

If you listen to the rumors, Joel surely had rented a place in Chicago after the Hawks hired him as a pro scout this summer after he left the Avalanche coaching job. Whoa! Wait a minute, says Coach Q.

"I was really getting into the scouting job," he said. "Go to a few games each week and just write up a few reports on players I saw."

He didn't have to take the game home with him and ...

At that point Quenneville raised his arms in surprise and kind of looked up to the heavens and added, "This, coaching the Blackhawks, came out of ... nowhere. I was set for a winter at home with the family in Denver. I had renewed my ski pass. My wife and I were even planning a family trip to Hawaii, the first trip like that in, uh, I don't know how long. But that's all changed.

"I guess I'll have to put my game face back on again."

Once a coach, always a coach?

After losing in a shootout in St. Louis in his first game behind the Blackhawks bench, Quenneville directed Chicago to wins against Vancouver and Edmonton.

Coach Q is Chicago's eighth coach since the start of the 1998-99 season, following Dirk Graham, Lorne Molleken, Bob Pulford, Alpo Suhonen, Brian Sutter, Trent Yawney and Savard. The only other NHL team to employ 8 or more head coaches during the last 10 seasons is the New York Islanders, who've had 9.

Getting better with age --
Mike Modano, now 38-year-old, says he feels invigorated this season -- and, after getting his third goal in 6 games this season, a game-winner in the third period of a 2-1 victory against the New York Rangers, he thinks he can lead the Stars in scoring again. The last time he did that was 2005-06. ... Modano's name came up in another story line recently. Patrik Elias's assist on the first Devils goal in their 4-3 shootout victory against the Capitals on Oct. 18 was his 365th for the club. That broke a tie with Scott Niedermayer, giving Elias sole possession of the Devils/Rockies/Scouts franchise record for assists. The only other active player for a team that predates the 1979 NHL expansion to be the career assists leader for that team -- Modano for the Stars/North Stars. ... Joe Sakic, who contemplated retirement in the offseason, is proving he's got a lot left to contribute. In recording 2 assists in the Avalanche's 5-4 win at Dallas on Oct. 18, he extended his point-scoring streak to 5 games. In so doing, the 39-year-old Sakic became the second-oldest player in NHL history to register a goal or an assist in each of his team's first 5 games. Gordie Howe did it for the Red Wings at age 39 in 1967 and again when he was 40 in 1968. ... When you talk about the Buffalo Sabres and their fast start, don't overlook the return to form of defenseman Teppo Numminen. He may be 40 and coming off a season in which he missed all but 5 games following open-heart surgery, but his savvy behind the blue line and ability to skate has been a calming influence on the young Sabres. ... Mike Keenan and Todd Bertuzzi? Yeah, it's kind of an odd pair with a prickly demeanor. But Bertuzzi had some unforgettable seasons offensively -- 25, 25, 36 and 46 goals in four seasons -- after Keenan helped put him on the map in Vancouver. Now, Bertuzzi, in his first season in Calgary, had 5 goals in his first 4 games. ... Back on left wing in St. Louis after a couple seasons at center, power forward Keith Tkachuk is off to a fast start -- 7 goals in his first 6 games. "It gets me more involved right now, getting the hit or taking the hit," said Tkachuk, who compared playing on a line with another power forward like David Backes to his days when Scott Mellanby was on a wing with him in St. Louis with Pavol Demitra at center. "We hit and banged and it created scoring chances. At center, I didn't feel as involved in the game physically."

Melrose an astronaut? -- From the where are we and who are we department: Tampa Bay coach Barry Melrose on the Lightning's early season problems, first in Europe, now in North America, "We've already been to Mars and back." Captain Vinny Lecavalier finally got Melrose his first victory with an overtime goal in a 3-2 victory against Atlanta on Oct. 21 after the Lightning started the season 0-2-3.

Kessel stepping up -- Phil Kessel went from 11 goals as a rookie in 2007-08 to 19 last season. This season, he had 6 goals in his first 6 games and was beginning to show the explosiveness he did as a freshman at the University of Minnesota, when he was ranked No. 1 for the 2006 Entry Draft. That was before he slipped to the fifth pick by Boston that year. "He's playing more mature, winning more battles," said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. Kessel joined Marc Savard as the first teammates to have 5 goals in 5 games since Jaromir Jagr and Tomas Sandstrom accomplished the feat for Pittsburgh in 1995-96. The last Boston duo to achieve the feat? Phil Esposito and Ken Hodge in 1973-74. Fun fact: Kessel's dad, Phil Sr., was a college quarterback who played under QB coach Steve Mariucci at Northern Michigan from 1976-81. He was drafted by the Washington Redskins, but played professionally for the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League and with Birmingham of the USFL. Said Phil Jr., "I may have gotten some skill from my dad, but I got my speed from my mom (Kathy), who ran track in college."

Sutter settling in -- Except for his 31.7 faceoff percentage, Carolina rookie Brandon Sutter looks right at home in the NHL, where dad, Brent, and uncles Brian, Darryl, Duane, Ron and Rich set a standard for hard work and quality hockey. The first-round pick -- No. 11 --  in the 2007 Entry Draft, is the ninth family member drafted by NHL teams. He's right at home at center behind veterans Eric Staal and Rod Brind'Amour. Talk about strength down the middle! Plus, he's getting tips from Hall of Famer Ron Francis. Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette observed, "He's got the head, he's got the sense, got the hands, he's certainly got the pedigree and he knows how to play the game."

Not a net gain --
Toronto's No. 1 goalie Vesa Toskala played all of regulation and overtime against the Ducks on Oct. 21, but when the game went to a shootout, coach Ron Wilson inserted Curtis Joseph in goal. The reason? Toskala's 2-9 career record and miserable 49 percent save percentage (17 of 35) in shootouts, compared to Cujo's 5-2 mark and 75 percent save percentage (24 of 32). Unfortunately for Wilson and the Leafs, the Ducks won the game when Teemu Selanne and Corey Perry scored on both of their shootout attempts against Joseph, while Anaheim goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere turned aside both of Toronto's attempts. This was the fourth time in the four seasons that the NHL has used the shootout that a goaltending switch was made after an overtime deadlock -- and in all four games the team making the switch lost. The other goaltenders to come in cold were Buffalo's Martin Biron on Nov. 22, 2005 vs. the Rangers, Edmonton's Mike Morrison on March 7, 2006 vs. Dallas and Atlanta's Kari Lehtonen on Oct. 26, 2006 at Philadelphia.

A long, long wait -- At 28, Toronto defenseman Jonas Frogren is making the most of his first opportunity to play in the NHL. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Frogren was drafted way back in 1998 by the Calgary Flames in the eighth round. This late bloomer is playing a lot of the big matchup minutes for Wilson after being signed as a free agent this summer. Al Coates was the general manager in Calgary when the Flames drafted Jonas. He and another former Flames GM, Cliff Fletcher, now the head man for the Leafs, have kept in touch with former Flames wing Hakan Loob over the years. Loob, who coached Frogren at Farjestad in the Swedish Elite League, tipped off Fletcher and Coates about Frogren -- and after watching him play late last season, they moved quickly to sign him.

 
 
Dollars and sense department -- With Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik injured, the Devils might want to give Brendan Shanahan another call. The veteran power forward, who started his career in New Jersey and won three Stanley Cups in Detroit, is at wits end waiting to play for the New York Rangers again. Cap problems keep the Rangers from bringing him back after 29 and 23 goals the last two seasons. ... Still waiting for the shoe to drop on Chicago's $11.5 million goaltending tandem of Nikolai Khabibulin ($6.5 millon) and Christobal Huet ($5 million). GM Dale Tallon would love to sign veteran Kyle McLaren to fill out his top-6 defensemen, but his salary cap hit on McLaren's contract from San Jose is beyond the Hawks' reach right now. ... Pizza anyone? That's what they call Ottawa's top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza. This week, Spezza got the deep dish treatment all the way to the second line. That's new coach Craig Hartsburg sending a message to all of his players. Extra toppings will come when Spezza gets back with Alfredsson and Heatley and shows off the skills we all know he has. ... Oh, those rumors. They can kill a guy's enthusiasm. Just ask Vancouver defenseman Kevin Bieksa -- he of a 12-goal, 42-point production and a robust game defensively 2 years ago. Bieksa was greeted to trade rumors at training camp this season. It shook him, especially after he was a minus-11 last season and missed more than half the season with injuries. New Canucks GM Mike Gillis told Bieksa not to let the rumors bother him and that he wasn't going anywhere. He played like that top-2 defenseman he is Oct. 21 at Columbus, logging a club-leading 28 minutes and standing out as Vancouver's best player that night. ... Each of Tampa Bay's first 6 games this season was decided by 1 goal (2 regulation losses, 2 overtime losses, 1 shootout loss and 1 overtime victory). The Lightning are the first NHL team to begin a season with 6 consecutive 1-goal-margin or tie games since the Devils in 2003-04. The only teams with a longer such streak to begin a season were the 1930-31 New York Americans (first 8 games) and the 2002-03 Nashville Predators (first 7 games). In that same vein, Red Wings GM Ken Holland spoke about the obvious parity in today's salary-cap era, saying, "You're going to have 15 to 17 games where the game might be decided after 2 periods, where you're either out of it or you've won it. Sixty-five times, the game is going to be decided in the last 5, 6, 7 minutes. It's a fine line between winning and losing."

"I was on a great line with Doug Weight and Bill Guerin in Edmonton, but this better." -- Colorado's Ryan Smyth

Avalanche of good fortune -- All healthy for 6 games for the first time, the line of Paul Stastny, Milan Hejduk and Ryan Smyth is turning heads in Colorado. In their first 6 games this season, the trio combined for 11 goals and 24 points. Said Smyth, "I was on a great line with Doug Weight and Bill Guerin in Edmonton, but this better." ... Speaking of the swashbuckling goal crease-crasher Smyth and the Oilers, Erik Cole, acquired from Carolina for defenseman Joni Pitkanen, is beginning to give that same net presence back to Edmonton. And that becomes doubly important when you consider how effective defensemen Sheldon Souray, Lubomir Visnovksky, Denis Grebeschkov and Tom Gilbert are at getting the puck through to the net. ... It's amazing how 2 quality puck-moving defensemen like Dan Boyle and Rob Blake and the urging of new San Jose coach Todd McLellan has brought out offensive tendencies of fellow defenders Christian Ehrhoff and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (who had only 12 assists in 82 games last season and already has 5 this season), isn't it? ... The Blue Jackets sent 2007 No. 1 pick Jakub Voracek back to his junior team last year because he wasn't strong enough. He went from 181 pounds to 202 -- and now the seventh pick in that draft is playing like a cornerstone player in Columbus. "They challenge you 1-on-1 and 2-on-2 all the time in the NHL," Voracek remarked. "I watched how Sergei Fedorov used his size and speed to beat those situations when I was in camp last year -- and now I think I'm ready." Two assists in a 4-2 victory over Vancouver on Oct. 21 gives Jakub 2 goals and 3 assists in 6 games and a thumbs up from this corner.

Change does them good --
Proof that the grass can be greener on the other side is New York Rangers defenseman Wade Redden. At least twice in the last year, the Ottawa Senators tried to trade the veteran who always averaged 23-25 minutes of ice time for the Senators. He's flourishing in the Big Apple, playing a team-leading 26.8 shifts per game. ... More moving on music: There's something about the Southeast Division that makes Cory Stillman tick. The veteran forward was OK in his first 6-plus seasons in Calgary and the next 2-plus seasons in St. Louis. Going to the Southeast, he won Stanley Cups with Tampa Bay in 2004 and Carolina in 2005 and became a weapon on offense for those two teams before being traded to Ottawa at the deadline last February. He didn't do enough there to boost the Senators in the playoffs, and now he's back in his favorite division with Florida and had 3 goals and 3 assists in his first 6 games with the young Panthers. ... Looking for football-like defensive numbers? How about the 30 hits and 27 blocked shots by Montreal defenseman Michael Komisarek? ... Speaking of football, R.J. Umberger is beginning to get a feel for linemates Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius in Columbus, where he went to school at Ohio State. And, oh by the way, he's still bummed out that the Buckeyes lost to USC earlier this season. Umberger wowed us with his outside speed in Philadelphia. With the Blue Jackets, he'll use his size to good advantage around the net as well.

Malkin sizzling with Crosby -- Forget the Stanley Cup swoon for Pittsburgh star Evgeni Malkin. At one stretch this week, he had a hand in 8-straight goals for the Penguins. And if coach Michel Therrien decides to keep Malkin and Sidney Crosby together on the team's No. 1 line with Pascal Dupuis, we could be talking about a 1-line power like we often have in Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Thomas Holmstrom the past couple seasons. For now, being with Crosby helps protect the only flaw in Malkin's game -- his woeful 38 percent faceoff efficiency. ... Don't look now, but Dupuis, the other guy in the Atlanta trade to Pittsburgh with Marian Hossa late last February, has outscored Hossa 2-1 this season. Hossa's goal, coming for his new team in Detroit, was a big one, however. He became the first player whose first goal for his new team was an overtime game-winner since 1983 -- Bob Manno doing it in the first season after the five-minute sudden-death overtime was instituted. ... Don't point fingers at Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff just yet for Calgary's slow start. Think about it -- since Kipper took the Flames to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004 and posted 42 and 40 wins the last two seasons, Calgary has said goodbye to a pretty solid group of defensemen -- namely Toni Lydman, Andrew Ference, Jordan Leopold, Rhett Warrener, Mike Commodore, Roman Hamrlik and Brad Stuart. ... A name you might not be familiar with just yet? Blackhawks 22-year-old wing Kris Versteeg. The former fifth-round pick in 2004 by Boston has a nose for the net and fits right in with youngsters Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews without the enormous upside of that pair, however. The Hawks acquired Versteeg for journeyman Brandon Bochenski a couple of years ago. ... Mark this down: One of the best under-the-radar deals this season was Los Angeles claiming defenseman Kyle Quincey on waivers from Detroit. In his first 2 games with the Kings, Quincey, who was always close to making a spot for himself in Detroit, played a whopping average of 23:45 minutes. He moves the puck, is responsible in his own zone, plays with confidence. ... After scoring 8 goals in 24 playoff games to help lead the John Anderson-coached Chicago Wolves to the American Hockey League's Calder Cup title -- some on the wing instead of at center -- Anderson is experimenting with Little on the wing in Atlanta this season with good results. Four goals in his first 6 games with the Thrashers is a pretty good return, wouldn't you say?
Quote of the Day

A piece of scar tissue breaks off, pinches the nerve, and every time you move your leg it's almost like having a root canal in your stomach and groin.

— Detroit Red Wings center Stephen Weiss on his sports hernia surgery