When coach Bruce Boudreau issues instructions to the Wild during intermissions, like how it needs to be better on faceoffs, he doesn’t notice a change in captain Mikko Koivu’s expression.
“But he goes out next period, and you have to be a monster to beat him on the draw,” Boudreau said.
The Wild will be without Koivu for the remainder of the season after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee, but the team isn’t just losing one of its top-six forwards who handles all on-ice situations.
It’ll also miss the determination and commitment that simmers beneath the surface while he leads by example, an approach that makes the Wild mourn for the person and not just the player.
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“We’ll do what we have to do to win,” Boudreau said. “But I’m feeling more for Mikko. Here’s a battler. He’s a quiet guy, so people don’t realize how A, tough he is and how B, of a battler and competitor he is. I know this is upsetting to him, but I also know that he’s such a competitor and he will come back and he will be ready for next year.”
Koivu was injured Tuesday in the 5-4 shootout loss to the Sabres in Buffalo, leaving the action in the first period after he collided with winger Tage Thompson near center ice while carrying the puck.
The two bumped right legs, sending Koivu falling to the ice.
He’s scheduled to undergo surgery Friday, stalling his pursuit of 1,000 career games — which he was on track to achieve in April.
“It’s not the greatest situation to be in,” forward Charlie Coyle said after Tuesday’s game. “He’s such a huge part on the ice, in the locker room. He’s our leader: faceoffs, defense, everything. He does it all, and you can’t really replace him.”
One of the NHL’s premier shutdown centers, Koivu is the Wild’s all-time leading scorer, with 688 points from 201 goals and 487 assists, while also ranking tops in games played (973) after being a first-round draft pick (sixth overall) in 2001.
This season, the 35-year-old had eight goals and 29 points in 48 games and sat 14th in the NHL in faceoff wins (488). Koivu has one more season left on a two-year, $11 million contract.
Recovery time after ACL surgery for hockey players is generally six to seven months.
Wild winger Luke Kunin had surgery to repair a torn ACL on April 3 last year and was back playing in October.
Boudreau likened hearing Koivu’s diagnosis to getting “a kick in the teeth,” and expects it’ll take a committee approach to fulfill the role of someone who averaged more than 18 minutes of ice time, worked the power play and penalty kill and was ushered over the boards at critical times — such as the last minute of games — to stifle the opposition’s best.
“Somebody’s going to have to step up and say, ‘OK, I’m the faceoff guy now here, and I’m going to be that guy,’ ” Boudreau said. “ … You’re going to see the character of your team and your group, how they adjust to this.”
Without Koivu for most of Tuesday’s game, the Wild shifted Coyle to center from wing — an option moving forward, especially considering how comfortable Coyle has looked at that position.
He played up the middle earlier in the season when Koivu sat out four games with a lower-body injury. After he reunited with former linemates Zach Parise and Kunin against Buffalo, the three helped the Wild collect a point by having a hand in three goals — including Parise’s team-leading 21st that sent the game to extra time.
The Wild also recalled center Joel Eriksson Ek from the American Hockey League after he was assigned to Iowa on Jan. 24 to log heavy minutes.
Coaches brainstormed “about 102” line combinations Wednesday, Boudreau said, and will decide what the lineup will look like Thursday morning ahead of the Wild’s home game against the Edmonton Oilers. Veteran Eric Fehr, who was out sick Tuesday, is questionable.
Koivu’s injury is the second major one to rock the Wild this season. Defenseman Matt Dumba is on the mend from a torn pectoral muscle that could also keep him sidelined for the balance of the season.
Dumba’s absence is still felt, especially on the power play, but the Wild has remained tethered to the top wild-card seed despite going winless at 0-1-2 since its return from an eight-day layoff.
That’s because the race in the Western Conference has been more like a leisurely stroll than a sprint; six points separate eight teams that aren’t running away from each other amid up-and-down results.
Still, the Wild senses pressure to pull away and Boudreau believes the team’s been competitive during a recent string of close losses.
“We’re knocking on the door,” he said. “We need that game to kick the door down, and once we do that, I think we’ll be OK.”
Continuing to vie for a playoff spot without Dumba and now Koivu is a challenge, but Boudreau is counting on the Wild to rebound — even while it sympathizes with Koivu for missing out on the push and the chance to further grow his legacy.
“All those things he didn’t get this year,” Boudreau said, “he’s going to get next year.”