Mikko vs. Saku: Comparing the Koivus' Careers

Mikko Koivu announced his retirement this week, seven years after brother Saku. Who had the better career? The tale of the tape is closer than you may think.
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Did it feel strange seeing Mikko Koivu in a Columbus Blue Jackets jersey after 15 seasons with the Minnesota Wild? Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be. After just seven games with his new team, Koivu, 37, abruptly announced his retirement Tuesday. He did so in the hours following the news of fellow Finn Patrik Laine being benched by coach John Tortorella, but Koivu insisted his decision had nothing to do with any inner team turmoil.

“For my decision, what it came down to was really that I wasn’t able to play at the level that I want to play at, and I feel for myself that if I can’t do the job I want to on the ice the way I want to do it, it also impacts me in the room,” Koivu said during his post-retirement presser Tuesday. “Every game, I had to push to get ready, and I just couldn’t get to the rhythm, just didn’t feel the way I want to feel as a hockey player and being able to enjoy the game.”

Koivu, a center who was drafted sixth overall in 2001, ends his career with 1,035 games, 206 goals and 711 points. He is the Wild’s all-time leader in games, assists and points. Among Finnish-born NHLers, he ranks fifth in points, trailing only Teemu Selanne (1,457), Jari Kurri (1,398), brother Saku Koivu (832) and Olli Jokinen (750).

The Koivu brothers, born nine years apart, brought some similar elements to their careers: leadership and two-way play from the center position. Saku was a more dynamic offensive player. Mikko was bigger, stronger and played more of a shutdown game. So who had the better career between the brothers? Let’s break it down, just for fun, to celebrate the end of the Koivus’ run in the NHL. When The Hockey News produced a special issue on the Top 100 Finnish players of all-time in 2016, Saku finished fourth and Mikko sat 12th. Did Mikko close the gap between then and now?

OFFENSIVE PLAY

Saku played his entire prime during the Dead Puck Era, which lasted from his sophomore season of 1996-97 through 2003-04. During that span, 495 NHLers played at least 300 games, and Saku sat 31st among them in points per game at 0.85, sandwiched between Adam Oates and Peter Bondra. During Dead Puck, Saku was a 94th-percentile scorer. As a playmaker, Saku only reached 20-plus goals three times in his 18 seasons, topping out at 22, but he crested 50 points nine times and 70 points twice.

Mikko debuted in 2005-06, season 1 of The New NHL. Like Saku, Mikko had three 20-goal seasons and topped out at 22. Mikko recorded seven 50-point seasons and cracked 70 once. If we judge Mikko by the same eight-year “prime” beginning in his sophomore year, he’s at 0.80 points per game during that stretch, lower than Saku despite the higher-scoring era. That said: Mikko was a 91st-percentile scorer during those years, ranking 43rd of 496 between Jason Pominville and Mike Cammalleri. Surprised to see Mikko that high? I was. Saku was the better scorer at his peak, but the margin over Mikko wasn't huge.

Edge: Saku

DEFENSIVE PLAY

Most of Saku’s career was played before the analytics era. The league didn’t even track faceoffs until his age-33 season, but he won them at a 52.2-percent clip from that point until his final season at 39. Saku played a more defensive role in his final seasons with Anaheim. He only earned Selke Trophy votes in four of his 18 seasons, however, and never finished higher than 26th on the ballot.

Mikko’s defensive play, on the other hand, defined his career. He was regularly tasked with shutting down opponents’ top forwards. He won 54.1 percent of his faceoffs. He earned Selke votes in 10 of 15 seasons with the Wild, with four top-10 finishes and three top-five finishes. From 2016-17 through 2017-18, which yielded a third- and fifth-place finish, Mikko had the lowest 5-on-5 expected goals against of any forward in the league who logged 1,000 or more minutes. Mikko was one of the better defensive forwards of his era. He never took home a Selke because he happened to share that period with all-time-great defensive forwards such as Patrice Bergeron and Anze Kopitar.

Edge: Mikko

NHL TEAM SUCCESS

Neither Koivu hoisted the Stanley Cup, and neither even advanced as far as a conference final. Saku reached the playoffs 11 times, advancing to the second round twice with the Montreal Canadiens and once with the Anaheim Ducks. He played on three division-winning teams in the regular season. Mikko competed in nine post-seasons, reaching the second round twice. He played for one regular-season division winner. Both brothers had mediocre careers in terms of NHL team success.

Edge: neither

INTERNATIONAL PLAY

Saku was an institution on the Finnish national team. He played in seven World Championships, averaging better than a point per game, capturing a gold, two silvers and a bronze. He competed in four Olympics, captaining the team three times, earning a silver and three bronzes. Saku was also a two-time Finnish Liiga champion and a decorated player individually there, winning a scoring title.

Mikko: Also a great run internationally. He competed at the worlds six times, winning a gold, two silvers and two bronzes. He was a two-time Olympian, taking home a silver and a bronze. An injury cost him a chance to play a major role on the 2014 squad, and NHLers didn’t go to the 2018 Winter Games, so he missed his last two Olympic opportunities. Mikko won the Liiga championship once.

Edge: Saku

INTANGIBLES

Both players had great reputations as teammates around the league throughout their careers. Mikko was the longest-serving captain in Wild history at 12 seasons. But it’s tough to top Saku’s career from an intangibles perspective – for any player, not just Mikko. Saku beat non-Hodgkin's lymphoma during the 2001-02 season and improbably returned with a few games to go. He won the Masterton Trophy that season for his perseverance and dedication to the game. Saku was also awarded the King Clancy Trophy later in his career for his charity work. He was the first European captain in Montreal Canadiens history and has the franchise's second-longest tenure wearing the 'C' at nine years, trailing only Jean Beliveau's 10. 

Edge: Saku

CONCLUSION

It’s still safe to say Saku had the better all-around career than Mikko, but the comparison is much closer than many people may realize. Mikko, the superior defensive player, had similar regular-season numbers and almost as strong of an international resume as his big brother’s.

Congrats, Mikko, on a great NHL career, one of the best ever by a Finn.

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