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The debate has raged on and on for weeks, months and even years:  where does Saku Koivu rate amongst the centres of the league.  Because of a series of injuries, specifically to his knees, and a year long battle with cancer, the question is a difficult one to answer.  Some say it’s impossible to judge where he is because of these unfortunate circumstances, and in some respects that’s an entirely viable statement.  However, if such a statement were globally true, then why are players such as Forsberg and Lindros allotted values while Koivu, toiling with a club that’s struggled for most of the time he’s played in Montreal, been foisted off as an injury prone nobody. 


Before looking at Koivu specifically, perhaps it’s best if the actual definition of the ‘first line centre’ is looked at first, since in this case it’s central to the discussion.


When most people talk about first line centres and use the name Koivu in the same sentence, there’s usually a negative involved since comparison to the league’s elite, such as Sakic and Forsberg would seem somewhat laughable.  The problem that arises here is that such players have transcended the ‘first liner’ label towards the ‘franchise player’ level.  You wouldn’t necessarily build a franchise around Koivu, but both Sakic and Forsberg would be centrepieces.


After the franchise level, you can take a look at the ‘all-star’ level centremen, consisting of those either on their way up, or in the waning moments of careers, yet who are still able to consistently raise the level of play on their teams and are natural all-star talents.  Lemieux figures prominently here, as does Thornton, Sundin, Roenick, and Modano.  Thornton will soon be regarded as the elite franchise player, if he’s not already there now, and Lemieux can only be classed here because of the lateness in his illustrious career in which we formulate this examination.


A star is a player who may or may not make the all-star teams, but is one who elevates those he plays with and is a player who, on any given night, can make the difference in a game.  If you take names like Datsyuk, Lang and Yashin, then surely Koivu is amongst these.  Datsyuk has played in the offence-rich environment that is Detroit, and while Lang has spent much of the year in Washington, he at least played with elite talents like Bondra while there.  Yashin, while struggling for worthy wingers, is another who’s performed well, but in his case one wonders whether an attitude shift might propel him to the stratosphere and beyond – his talents are definitely upper class.  Steve Yzerman has dropped to this level, though at one time the Wings were built around him.


Beyond this level is the regular first-liner, the player that’s slotted in between the best wingers (in general) on the club and gets the most minutes for pivots on his team.  Morrison, on Vancouver, is probably at or near the top of this list; he’s by no means an elite talent, but put him between Naslund and Bertuzzi and you have yourself an extremely competent line.  Lecavalier is here for now, though it can only be a matter of time before he takes the jump up a couple of levels.  Marleau for the Sharks is also here, but this season he looks poised to make a move up the charts as well.


Why does Koivu fit amongst that lofty group that call themselves stars?  There are a variety of reasons that show that, despite injuries, he’s a highly talented player who brings more than just some offence to his club.  First of all, look at his point-per-game production:  presently he’s at .87 per game, and if you take out his first five games which can be considered his training camp, he’s at .95.  Lofty numbers when you consider that only a handful of players score at a point-per-game pace.  


Last season, his first after missing a year with cancer, he again was closing in on the point-per-game pace (.87), and his achievements were doubly impressive when you consider how long it takes a body to recover from that disease.  Mario Lemieux mentioned that the year after he’d returned from cancer had found him hitting a wall at about the mid-point of the season and which lasted for a couple of weeks.  Considering that Koivu had a tougher challenge with a nastier version of cancer, his accomplishments are even more impressive. 


Consider that, when he returned to the lineup after having missed games, players, and indeed the team, play better.  Case in point is Richard Zednik whose production only improved once Koivu had returned from his forced absence at the beginning of the season because of a knee sprain.  Rookie of the Year candidate Michael Ryder is another who benefited greatly from paying beside Koivu.  In early games he was a fourth line player struggling to make in up the lineup, but once he was placed on Koivu’s wing, he broke out and his confidence soared.  Frequently he was seen on the bench listening intently to Koivu as the captain explained and helped the youngster along.


Earlier in his career, Koivu was adjudged – by his peers no less – to be the best stickhandler in traffic in the Eastern Conference.  That’s pretty high praise, and while it doesn’t place him over the top in terms of talent, it does point to yet another aspect of his game that’s of a higher-than-average quality. 


Also consider that, while being as small as he in NHL standards, he’s also a surprisingly strong player and can lay out an opponent with a body check.  He plays the game like someone with a couple of inches and a couple dozen pounds more might do.  One wonders what Koivu would be like as a player if he was the two inches taller and approximately 20 pounds heavier – much like the size of a certain Peter Forsberg.  They both play an incredibly feisty game (leading *both* to injury troubles) and as both have a high skill level, that extra size might elevate Koivu into rarefied air of the elite.


Now add to it all his defensive abilities which he’s had to acquire to be successful in Montreal and you have a more complete player than many of the so-called top centres in hockey.  He plays the penalty kill and is used in critical situations with the Canadiens, and that kind of player tends to be regarded highly around the league.


Put it all together and you have a player of a very high standard.  And so to the question presented: where does Koivu fit amongst the league’s centres?


He is not in the same class as a Forsberg or a Sakic or even a Thornton.  Neither is he quite in the class of the Modano’s, Fedorov’s, Lemieux’s or Roenick’s; each of whom brings more to their respective club at this point in their careers and each of whom is a standout player who would overshadow all but the best in hockey.  Sundin flirts with this group as well, though at times he can float more than a weather balloon.


He is, however, in the upper echelon of the following centres in hockey, those who would be considered stars.  Is his talent and overall contribution any less than that of Yashin, Lang, or Datsyuk?  I hardly think so.   He may not always equal out in the points category, but then you have to consider the environment and the players he’s with on a nightly basis.  Consider that the latter two have played with elite wingers all year long, and in the case of Yashin, his points-per-game ratio is quite low. 


Within Montreal fan circles, comparisons have been made with Morrison and the consensus has been clear, Koivu is the desired commodity.  Indeed even Vancouver fans have been heard to mention that Koivu on the main line with the Canucks two main wingers would make for an even more formidable combination than with Morrison.  That’s not to take away from the abilities of the Vancouver top-liner, it’s just to illustrate that Koivu offers perhaps a little bit more.


What about players like Arnott, Lecacalier, Marleau, Yzerman, Drury, Lindros, Ribeiro, Primeau and the like?  Each is good, indeed one (Yzerman) was elite until age caught up with him and another (Lindros) until head injuries stunted his growth, but for a number one centre leading your team’s attack there is not a one better than Koivu at this moment. 


Lecavalier and Marleau could one day get to his level and beyond, but that isn’t today.  The saying says, “what have you done for me lately,” not “what are you going to do for me sometime in the future.”  Arnott doesn’t have the offensive capabilities and neither does Drury.  Ribeiro might make it there in a couple of years, but at this point there can be no comment on consistency on his part because there’s no evidence either way.  Primeau has become a defensive centre this season so is hardly on the same level. 


At the very least that puts him as a top 20 centres in the league, and as his production and overall game states, it’s realistically higher than that.  Drop him in at ninth or tenth overall and you’d be hitting the mark.  If there’s an underrated person in hockey, it might just be Koivu – unfortunately because of the injuries, but also because of where he plays.  Montreal has wonderful media coverage – for Montreal.  Outside the city, not much is heard from the Canadiens and therefore people just don’t understand what he brings each night and each shift.


A legitimate number one centre?  Without a doubt, and any argument to the contrary needs to find a whole line of reasoning that is not apparent to this writer.  Amongst others not previously listed, find a few whose contribution is approaching the level that Koivu, brings along with the work ethic that very few in hockey can match, and perhaps there can be argument, but to suggest that Savard, Peca, Spezza, or Francis are better first line prospects does not seem rational.  Each might have a certain aspect that is special, but the global qualities are hardly worth mentioning in the same breath, either because of a lesser talent, or age – young or old. 


Koivu is a superior passer with excellent vision and some wonderful footwork which enables him to make special plays.  He supplements that with a fantastic knowledge of the game and a hockey sense that few have, and when you add in his desire, a quality that should go unquestioned in hockey, you have a player who is one of the better talents in the game, let alone his position. 


That some fans, particularly in Montreal, continue to call him overrated and of second line quality is mind-boggling to say the least.  Sure, place him with the Avalanche and he’s a third line guy, but on almost any other team in hockey, he’s the number one man – despite his size.


For those nay-sayers out there who like to point out the injury factor, they need only look at Forsberg.  He misses as much or more hockey than Koivu and yet fans don’t whine and complain that he should be a second line guy because of it – and that’s *with* Joe Sakic on the same team!  When Koivu drops into a slump for a few games, it would be better to remember that every single player in the game has those rather than permeate the airways with calls for his head to replace him as the number one guy.


Finally, to reiterate because this is the key, remember who Koivu plays with on a regular basis: Zednik, a low rated first line winger or a highly rated second line winger and Mister X – whoever Julien slaps on his other side; and it should be noticed that Mr. X is not a first line player since Montreal only just picked up a real first line winger at the trade deadline, Kovalev, and he’s playing on another line.


Without a doubt Koivu is a first line centre and a star in this league and as such should be given the respect he deserves.  Next time you’re out cheering for the Habs start a ‘Saku’ chant to let him know how you feel.  He’s been our attacking star through the misery years and now that the team is finally getting stronger around him, we need to recognize his talents instead of lumping him with the poor teams images of past years.  He’s a rare talent that has the ability, surrounded by a real team, to lead the Canadiens back to the promised land.


And isn’t that what it’s all about?