Sunday, August 22, 2010

Why the Habs Should Retire Koivu's Jersey

I had posted this on the official Montreal Canadiens message board, here:
Why the Habs Should Retire Koivu's Jersey
35 of 107 people who voted on the poll agreed, 68 disagreed and 4 voted "don't know". The topic generated 149 posts over 8 pages at the time of my reposting it here.


One of my first memories of the Habs is the 1993 Stanley Cup Win. Either way that cup would be something to celebrate, as if it were not the Habs winning it would be Gretzky winning with the Kings. The Habs won, I was 9 years old. I was watching the game at Chili's with my sister, and people were celebrating... I think we really nailed that game five and I remember thinking "oh cool this is historical", or something like that.

In the 1993 entry draft, we somehow managed to draft Saku Koivu at 21st overall. It was widely seen as a good pick, so it's nice if a Stanley Cup winner goes on to get a future. He didn't play in the NHL the following year when the Habs did badly. I remember hearing Saku Koivu described as "the best player in the world not playing in the NHL. Not sure if that was 1993-94 or 1994-95. In his rookie season, 1995-96, he went off to a good start, with 20 goals and 25 assists. He would eventually be the first European captain of the Habs, captaining them for 13 seasons, the longest stretch of any Habs captain.

Unfortunately, while he was a good player on this team, the best we had for a while, he often played pretty much alone. In the years 1994-1998, the team drafted Brad Brown, Terry Ryan, Matt Higgins, Jason Ward, Eric Chouinard with its first round picks. In 1995, Patrick Roy and Captain Mike Keane were traded to Colorado for Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Ručínský, and Andrei Kovalenko. In 1996, Pierre Turgeon, Craig Conroy and Rory Fitzpatrick were traded to St-Louis for Shayne Corson, Murray Baron and a 5th round draft choice. In 1999 Rechi was traded to Philadelphia for Zubrus, a 2nd rounder and a 6th rounder. In 1999, Damphousse was traded to San Jose for considerations that became a 2nd rounder and a 5th rounder. Basically, this period was a comprehensive catastrophe, the only surprise is that we never traded Saku Koivu for a 3rd rounder in the 2000 entry draft ... we could have drafted Jan Bohac. Koivu's team was largely put together in this period, and to my chagrin, the fans often seem to blame Koivu for the fact we didn't win a cup during his tenure. Later on, the team began to improve under Koivu's continued leadership, but there were still problems. Ron Hainsey and Francois Beauchemin were given up for nothing.

One wonders how he would have done without cancer, without knee injuries and without getting hockey sticks in the eye. In 1996-97, he had 38 points in 38 games before getting a knee injury. When he came back from cancer in 2001, he scored 71 points. In 2006, the Canadiens were crushing the Carolina Hurricanes in the playoffs when he received a stick to the eye. The Habs went on to be eliminated, and the Canes went on to win the cup. His best playoff performances were a 2nd round exit in 2001-02, 2003-04, in 2007-08. These are impressive performances for a team that was largely led by a few good players and a bunch of mediocrities. In the 2007-08 playoffs, Koivu actually had better playoff stats than Kovalev, with 9 points in 7 games whereas AK27 had 11 points in 12 games. To an entire generation of habs fans, those runs were all we saw. I also liked players who came and went, like Brian Savage, Richard Zednik, Jose Theodore, etc. Koivu was the mainstay.

His last season here, 2008-09, was very much a metaphor for his entire career. When he played on a line of Tanguay-Koivu-Latendresse, he was largely ppg. When he played on a line of Tanguay-Koivu-Kovalev, he was largely ppg. However, he also spent large swaths of the season playing with overrated mediocrities like Christopher Higgins who belong on a checking line, or babysitting Max Pacioretty and Matt D'Agostini. Carbonneau never tried Koivu-Kovalev-Kostitsyn. Since that season, Carbonneau has gone on to coach Canada's junior team to a 7th place finish after 7 straight world junior championships, and Latendresse has gone on to become a top power forward and a guy you can expect to score 30 goals. Meanwhile, the Habs have gone on to sign Scott Gomez, a guy who got paid 7.4 million for 12 goals and 47 assists last year. Koivu went on to the ducks, where he got paid around 3.5 million to score 19 goals and 33 assists. He was rewarded with a 2year contract paying 5 million total. Koivu played 13 years without ever getting a Ryan Smyth or Ryan Malone, whereas Gomez got Brian Gionta in his first week.

Saku Koivu would also win 3 bronze and 1 silver olympic medal, a gold, two silvers and a bronze at the world championships, and a silver at the 2004 world cup of hockey.

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