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Free Agent Centers & the Devils: Saku Koivu

As discussed with Mike Komisarek, the Montreal Canadiens will almost assuredly have a different look in 2009-10 with the sheer amount of free agents they have.  In addition to the five UFA defensemen they have, there are currently 6 RFA forwards and 5 UFA forwards according to NHL Numbers.  And four of those 5 UFA forwards are the highest paid. So should the mood so strike the Canadiens management, it's the ripe to rebuild.  Today, let's take a look at the best center available from Montreal: Saku Koivu.   While they certainly aren't getting any younger, I think you will find that he would make for a very good fit as a second line center.  And in my opinion, a better free agent option than, say, Robert Lang.

Saku Koivu

#11 / Center / Montreal Canadiens



Nov 23, 1974

2008-09 Salary: $4.75 million

2008 - Saku Koivu 65 16 34 50 4 44 5 0 5 0 123 13.0

The younger of the two Canadiens centers available is definitely the more well known.  The Finnish captain of the Bleu Blanc et Rouge is a legend if only for his burning desire both on and off the ice.  He famously battled back from stomach cancer to not only live, but to put on the famed Montreal sweater and play his heart out in 2002.  Robert Lefvebre at Habs' Eyes on the Prize has a fantastic account of not just his courageous Koivu's comeback but what Koivu means to the Canadiens.  Even if you're already familiar with what transpired, I encourage you all to read it closely and take it all in.    Truly, it seems off, but it's more than just possible that he'll finish his career outside of Quebec.

So Montreal's loss can be New Jersey's gain.   Koivu's production and style of play would be great for a second line.  Consider what Robert had to say about Koivu while he was reviewing Jacques Demers' comments about the Montreal free agents:

Demers fails to note that this so called 45 year old athlete finished second in playoff scoring and hit Zdeno Chara in the first round more often than a slew of less courageous bodies. Still viewed by too many for what he is not as a player, rather than for all that he is, I still believe Koivu is a keeper for two more seasons. It is true that he tends to max out after giving it his all after 16 to 18 minutes, but a better supported Koivu would offer a generous upside on his usually consistent output. The two week tease of him productively centering Kovalev and Tanguay begs for further investigation. The bottom line in going forward with Koivu, depends largely upon the club bringing in a center capable of assuming a larger role than either Plekanec or Lang were able to provide this past season.

There's a whole lot to like right there!  Seeing a 5'10", 187 pound center throwing hits against the likes of Chara is certainly something we'd like to see.  The scouting report on his player page notes his "fireball style" as a negative.  I read that as something as a positive, as I think he'd fit in given the Devils' preference for battling along the boards for the puck on offense. Besides, there are some nights where you'd love to see someone like that take charge and Koivu can definitely do that!

Moving onward, Robert notes that Koivu has limits.  Well, 16-18 minutes is definitely do-able for a second line center in New Jersey!  In 2008-09, Zach Parise led the forwards in ice time per game and that was only 18:49 per game.  No one forward really dominates in minutes last year and I don't expect that to change. So whether or not that is Koivu's limit isn't an issue.  His minutes could be modified accordingly.    As far as support, he could have Patrik Elias on his left and either Gionta (if he stays) and Rolston (if Gionta goes) on his right.  Koivu's a playmaking center, as seen by the fact that he hasn't scored more than 22 goals in a season in his career yet consistently puts up 50-70 points.  He'll have targets to set up both left and right on that line and it could be glorious.  And a Devil will most likely have the puck after Koivu takes the faceoff.  Despite playing only 65 games, Koivu still took 1,122 faceoffs and won 54.2% of them.  Yes, he'll be better than Zubrus at faceoffs, unlike some of the centers already looked at so far!

So he's been productive enough to be an effective secondary scorer, he's primarily a playmaking center, he won't have to be the leader carrying the team at times he was in Montreal, he's quite good on faceoffs, and he's loaded with character, heart, moxie, guts, chutzpah, and so forth.   I think he would be a far better signing that Montreal's other $4 million/year center, Robert Lang if only because Koivu is the better player.

While the two are different players - Lang is much older and has done better at scoring goals than Koivu, I feel Koivu would be more effective.  Lang wasn't awful with 18 goals and 39 points in 50 games and his season was cut short by an injury to his achilles tendon.  Yet, Lang's scouting report says it all: "Plays a soft game for his 6-2, 216-pound frame. Has below-average work ethic and speed." Whereas Koivu has a "fireball style," Lang is seen as a soft player who doesn't all that hard.  Definitely not a trait that would fit in New Jersey!  Devils forwards are expected to go to the boards when needed and comeback to help on defense, which in of itself can get physical. Should this report be valid, Lang should be avoided.  Moreover, Lang is not nearly as successful at faceoffs as Koivu was - Lang took fewer faceoffs with 768 and he only won 48.8% of them.  Lastly, at age 39, both Robert at Habs Eyes on the Prize and Jacques Demers seem to agree that Montreal can do better than signing him. Not exactly a vote of confidence for anyone else to sign him if those who follow and support Montreal don't seem to want the player back!

In the interest of being fair, Lang does match up well and in some cases better than Koivu according to Behind the Net's even strength statistics from last season.  While the goals for per 60 shoot up to 2.99 when either steps on the ice (2.25 when Lang is not out there, 2.35 when Koivu is not out there), Lang has the superior CORSI rating (-2.5 to -4.5) and the shots against per 60 remain under 30 for Lang at 28.9 (from 27.1) whereas it shoots up to 32.1 (from 29.2).  Moreover, while both have the same relative quality of teammates, Lang is accomplishing this with a higher relative quality of competition than Koivu (0.05 to 0.00).  Still, based on the differences in each player's styles and the fact that Koivu's turning 35 and Lang is turning 39, I feel that Koivu should be the target over Lang.

The major problem with signing Koivu is that the Devils will pretty much expect that he's not playing the full season.  While he's played a majority of seasons since 2002-03, his list of injuries is substantial enough to give a GM pause.  As he gets older, he could be more prone to injury and illness.  It's not a guarantee; and illnesses and injury could happen to anyone, but Koivu seems more prone to both.  It's going to be a risk that anyone who signs him will have to be prepared for.  With respect to the Devils, it may mean you'll see Dainius Zubrus (or someone else) take up center for a portion of the season.   Hopefully, wherever he goes, Koivu stays healthy as best as he can.

A side issue is the money involved.  Considering that he could very well not be playing more than 70 games, how much Koivu may want could become prohibitive.  While he'll be turning 35 in the next season, I think he can still bring a lot to the table and so that comes with a price.  I don't think he'll be able to get $4.75 million like he did last season, I can see him getting somewhere between $3-$4 million.  I could be wrong on that number, but I expect whoever to sign him to give him a short-term deal. Either way, he would quite affordable for the Devils and I think they'll have the space to make additional signings to improve elsewhere (e.g. checking line center, defense, etc.)

Honestly, given how Koivu plays the game alone, I think the Devils should make him an offer.   Since there aren't any sure-fire, low-risk, highly capable second line centers who aren't prohibitively expensive; the Devils will have to accept some risks and downsides should they look for one.   In Koivu's case, it's his health and perhaps his age - not his talent, work ethic, and definitely not his passion or character. If he's given a 2 year deal and if he truly declines as a player, he won't be a massive albatross cap-wise or roster-wise.  Provided he can stay fairly healthy and be ready for the playoffs, I would be more than comfortable with Koivu as a Devil for even $4 million/year as long as it's a short-term deal.  I think he would be a solid short-term solution for that center position.

I thank the comments here and here that suggested Koivu.  Now it's your turn.  Perhaps I'm too positive about Koivu, or perhaps I was too negative on Lang.  Perhaps you think I'm right. Perhaps you're thinking Arby's something else entirely. Either way, have your say in the comments.