Last week, Minnesota Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau was upset that Mikko Koivu was not listed as a contender for the Selke trophy. It’s not simply a coach’s bias clouding judgement; Mikko Koivu is one of the NHL’s best defensive players. When you think of the NHL’s top defensive forwards, Mikko Koivu usually isn’t on that list. You have the usual suspects who are always in contention for the Selke trophy (Toews, Kopitar, Bergeron), you have players with strong reputations for being hard to play against like Ryan Kesler and David Backes, and then you have the young players or those that have shown vast improvement in their own zone since the start of their careers like Aleksander Barkov or Nicklas Backstrom. Out of all those players I listed, only 1 (Bergeron) has had a better expected goals against per 60 minutes than Mikko Koivu since 2013
Mikko Koivu deserves to be in the same conversation with players such as Patrice Bergeron and Anze Kopitar. For whatever reason, you don’t hear Koivu in the Selke conversation. The definition of the award is as follows:
“The Frank J. Selke Trophy is an annual award given to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.” – NHL.com
If defence is the focus of the award, Koivu should be mentioned every season.
You can easily see Mikko Koivu is in that elite set of company in the bottom left. He gives up fewer shot attempts than the vast majority of players. Even more impressive, Koivu is sensational at limiting quality chances. Even though faceoffs aren’t as important as commentators like to drive home, Koivu rates out well in this department owning a career 54.4 face-off win percentage.
Furthermore, by taking a look at unblocked shot locations against when Koivu is on the ice and off tells a similar story.
The first thing that should jump out at you is that the Wild generally do a good job at keeping pucks to the outside. Over the past two years, only the Nashville Predators have a better xGA/60 than the Wild. When Koivu is on the ice, the majority of shots are forced from the point. Without Koivu on the ice, many shots do come from outside the slot but the opposition does a better job at getting shots off closer to the net.
With Koivu being a defensive beast, you’d think he’d finish higher in Selke voting. Over the past two seasons, Koivu has finished 21 in Selke voting both years. The Finnish center’s highest finish occurred all the way back in the 2008-2009 season. Aside from him not having the reputation as a shutdown center, Koivu lacks the point production.
It seems crazy that an award dedicated to strictly defensive play has an offensive component to it. Since the 2005 lockout, the lowest point production output from a Selke winner was 55 points from Patrice Bergeron in 2014-2015. Excluding the lockout shortened 2012-2013 season, the Selke winner has averaged 66 points since 2010. Koivu has reached that mark or higher only twice in his career (2008-2009, 2009-2010).
It’s often said that the best defence is when you’re not in your own zone. Koivu routinely tilts the ice towards the opposition net. This is evident with his shot differentials being positive for five straight seasons. Koivu does a good job of limiting scoring chances.
As for this season thus far, it is difficult to create a scenario in which Koivu isn’t at least a top 3 candidate. After the Wild’s morning skate in Edmonton, Boudreau said, “Who’s got better numbers for a defensive forward than Mikko?” Koivu among the top 1% of forwards in expected goals against per 60 minutes, and among the top 30% in Corsi Against Per 60 minutes. Furthermore, his CF% is a solid 52.38% and his xGF% is the second best in the league next to teammate Mikael Granlund. Boudreau matches up Koviu (or tries his best) against the opposition’s top lines while giving him tougher shift starts than your average forward.
Lastly, Koivu is on pace for 61 points. While that pace will be difficult to maintain for the rest of the season given a shooting percentage more than double his career average, even if he finishes with 55, it should put him in the same ballpark as the usual suspects assuming shooting percentages of the likes of Toews rebound. The defensive game is one of the best in the league and it’s about time the Finnish center got his due.
Mikko Koivu has been one of the best defensive forwards of the past few years. With his strong play at both ends of the ice, Koivu is cementing himself as one of the front-runners for the Selke trophy. Whether voters will continue to shaft him remains to be seen but it is clear that Koivu is a key part of the Wild being Stanley Cup contenders and leading the Western conference in points.
*Stats (score, zone, venue adjusted) from: Corsica Hockey
*Unblocked Shot Rates Charts from Hockey Viz