Mikko Koivu

Under Pressure: Mikko Koivu

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“Under Pressure” is a preseason series we’ll be running on PHT. For each team in the NHL, we’ll pick one player, coach, GM, mascot or whatever that everyone will be watching closely this season. Feel free to play the song as you read along. Also feel free to go to the comment section and tell us we picked poorly.

For the Minnesota Wild, we pick… captain Mikko Koivu.

On the surface, Koivu had a solid 2013 campaign. He finished second on the team with 37 points and captained the Wild to their first postseason appearance in four years.

But dig a little deeper, and cracks start to show.

Koivu scored 33 of his 37 points in the first three months of the season, followed by a tough April-May stretch that saw his production dry up and Minnesota struggle.

Koivu scored just one goal and four points in 14 April games, a slump that coincided with the Wild going 5-8-1 to close out the year, backing into the eighth and final playoff spot — and a first-round date with the eventual Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks.

It was in that opening round where Koivu’s struggles got worse.

From the Minnesota Star-Tribune:

In his first playoff series since he was given the captain’s “C’’ Koivu played like a man unfamiliar with the job description during the Wild’s 5-2 loss to Chicago in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup quarterfinals…

…The Wild’s braintrust loves to defend Koivu by citing all the little things he does right, but the Wild, in this series, needs him to show up on something other than a microscope.

It’s a difficult challenge, facing the Blackhawks’ top line, but if the Wild is going to make a series of this, Koivu will need to at least be one of Minnesota’s better players.

So far, he hasn’t been close.

That nightmarish performance (minus-3, three minor penalties, 46 percent in the faceoff circle and just two shots on goal) was the low point, though things didn’t get much better. Koivu finished the series minus-6 overall and failed to score a single point.

Following the series, head coach Mike Yeo tried to put a brave face on things.

“I feel bad for Mikko,” Yeo explained. “He did a lot of the right things… and just didn’t get rewarded.”

Which brings us to the 2013-14 campaign.

Koivu enters not just a leader, but rather the leader — Minnesota never had a full-time captain prior to Koivu in 2009, having rotated the “C” for the first nine years of its existence.

There are challengers to the leadership mantle, though.

Zach Parise and Ryan Suter arrived to great fanfare, signed more lucrative contracts and were given alternate captaincies immediately upon their arrival — and within a year, Parise led the team in scoring and Suter earned a Norris nomination as the league’s top defenseman.

But this is still Koivu’s team until otherwise noted. That, along with his hefty $6.75 million cap hit, should raise the stakes for what promises to be a crucial year. The Wild have much higher aspirations than squeaking into the postseason and winning one game — they’re spending to the max and want to make a playoff run.

“We can’t say that we haven’t made the playoffs in four years,” Yeo explained. “We made the playoffs last year. And now our focus is on something bigger than that.”

For all of our Under Pressure series, click here.

Bears face Monsters for the AHL’s Calder Cup

MILWAUKEE - JUNE 15:  Chris Bourque #17 of the Hershey Bears kisses the Calder Cup after the Hershey Bears defeated the Milwaukee Admirals in game six of the AHL Calder Cup Finals on June 15, 2006 at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Bears defeated the Admirals 5-1 in game six to win the AHL Calder Cup. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The Hershey Bears and Lake Erie Monsters will play for the 2016 Calder Cup, as the American Hockey League’s championship series begins Wednesday.

The Bears, who start with home ice advantage, enter the series having won the Calder Cup 11 times — the most of any franchise in the league’s history. They also enter the final having dispatched the Toronto Marlies — Canada’s remaining hope for an AHL championship, right…? — in the third round.

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Meanwhile, the Monsters have been on a torrid run in the playoffs, losing only twice in 13 games so far. They’ve earned the sweep in two of three series, making quick work of the Rockford IceHogs and Ontario Reign.

Bears forward Carter Camper, a journeyman in the minors with three games of NHL experience with Boston in 2011-12, is second in AHL playoff scoring with 15 points in 17 games.

For the Monsters, Blue Jackets prospect Lukas Sedlak has been on a roll, offensively, and now has 13 points in 13 post-season games this year.

From the Columbus Dispatch:

Sedlak was regarded as a smart two-way forward, but his offensive production was minimal, almost non-existent. Players like that tend to drift away after a few seasons, pushed aside by the next wave of young talent and high draft picks.

“I’d say right around Christmas I started wondering what was going to happen,” Sedlak said. “I was asking my agent what Columbus thought of me, and I was prepared for everything — maybe even going back to Europe.

“I knew my contract was up after the season. I thought I was playing pretty well … but you just don’t know.”

 

Stars sign Dowling, Ranford to one-year deals

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The Dallas Stars made a pair of depth moves on Tuesday, announcing the signings of forwards Justin Dowling and Brendan Ranford to one-year contracts.

Both players have put up good numbers in the American Hockey League with the Texas Stars.

This past season, the 24-year-old Ranford scored 19 goals and 59 points in 76 games — all career highs for him in the minors. He played once for Dallas last season, but didn’t register a point.

Initially undrafted and a Stars’ free agent signing from two years ago, the 25-year-old Dowling was also productive with 11 goals and 46 points in 52 games.

Lombardi’s goal was to assemble USA World Cup team ‘that you think can beat Canada’

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 29: Dean Lombardi, an advisor to the 2014 Men's Olympic Hockey Team is introduced at the Marriott Marquis Hotel on June 29, 2013 in New York City.(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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When Dean Lombardi put together the United States roster for the return of the World Cup of Hockey, one model that attracted his attention was a team from 20 years ago.

That U.S. team led by Brett Hull, Brian Leetch, Mike Modano and Mike Richter beat Canada to win the tournament, a title the general manager of the Los Angeles Kings hopes to duplicate this fall. Lombardi and USA Hockey finalized the 23-man roster Friday, and the result was a gritty bunch that will very much fit coach John Tortorella’s personality.

Instead of taking pure skill in the form of forwards Phil Kessel and Paul Stastny and defensemen Cam Fowler and Kevin Shattenkirk, the U.S. went with grinders Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky up front and two-way players Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson on the blue line. Lombardi said the goal was the “type of the team that you think can beat Canada,” and one that will coalesce quickly without much time to prepare.

Related: Kessel takes World Cup snub in stride — ‘It is what it is’

“It made it essential that you do all your research in terms of not only the quality of the player and his ability but their history of being a good teammate and things like that,” Lombardi said Tuesday in a phone interview. “There was a lot to choose from, don’t forget. There are a lot of good players and you could easily argue that this guy should be here and everything else, and you wouldn’t be wrong.”

The 1996 team had high-end skill in the form of Hull, Modano, Jeremy Roenick and Tony Amonte, who scored the World Cup-winning goal that Lombardi considers the biggest in U.S. hockey history – more significant than Mike Eruzione’s from the “Miracle on Ice” against the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics.

Lombardi was quick to point to the Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane, Minnesota Wild’s Zach Parise and San Jose Sharks’ Joe Pavelski as the offensive talent that should mesh with the toughness of Dubinsky, Callahan, St. Louis Blues captain David Backes and Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler.

No Kessel came as a surprise given that he tied for the scoring lead at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and is leading the Pittsburgh Penguins in points in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Lombardi said the U.S. had plenty of skilled wingers and was looking to fill specific roles with its final few players.

“He’s a top player, but so are these other guys,” Lombardi said of Kessel. “It’s a good problem to have, but you can’t have all skill just like you can’t have all grit. You’re building a team, not an All-Star team.”

Lombardi and fellow USA Hockey management members Paul Holmgren and Brian Burke like a certain amount of size and toughness on their teams, so they knew this team would have a certain MO. Hiring Tortorella cemented that, and the final roster meetings in Colorado included a lot of the coach’s input.

But Lombardi also talked to 1996 World Cup-winning players like Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin and Derian Hatcher as well as some who got a silver medal at the 2010 Olympics and lost the bronze-medal game in Sochi. He wanted to know what went right, what went wrong and how to fix it, going so far as to watch the 1996 tournament again in the process.

That group was together in dorm rooms for a month in Providence, Rhode Island. The 2016 team will have some time at training camp in Columbus, Ohio, but that’s so little preparation that Lombardi and Co. wanted to define jobs in advance.

“If you’re going to pull it together quickly, it’s very clear what your roles are,” Lombardi said. “You don’t have time for players to figure that out. That’s what a player wants. He wants to know his role, then he’ll fit into your team concept.”

With a focus on NHL-sized ice and Canada as the target, Lombardi hopes he put together the right mix to win it all in Toronto.

Canada is “the benchmark and that’s what you’ve got to look at if you’re going to win this thing,” Lombardi said. “If they can come together like (the 1996) group and learn from maybe some of the mistakes they made as a group in the past and a lot of them have been together, they can beat Canada. No doubt about it.”

‘He was great, full of life’: Sharks’ Braun mourns the passing of father-in-law, NHL veteran Tom Lysiak

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 17:  Justin Braun #61 of the San Jose Sharks looks on during the third period against the Boston Bruinsat TD Garden on November 17, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Sharks defeat the Bruins 5-4.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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San Jose Sharks defenseman Justin Braun played Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final with a heavy heart.

According to CSN Bay Area, Braun’s father-in-law and NHL veteran Tom Lysiak passed away at the age of 63 after a battle with leukemia.

The news was confirmed Monday.

“He was great, full of life,” said Braun, as per CSN Bay Area. “Loved to hang out with the boys. Loved to talk about his hockey days. Great father, great husband. Great to me, welcomed me into the family.

“Just a tough day.”

Lysiak was a three-time NHL all-star, playing 13 seasons in the league with the Atlanta Flames and Chicago Blackhawks. He scored 292 goals and 843 points in 919 games over the course of his career.

Braun played Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. As per CSN Bay Area, he is expected to be in the Sharks lineup for Game 2.

“It’s a tough situation. To Justin’s credit, he was business as usual. He’s made some arrangements for after Game 2 to pay his respects and do what he has to do on that end,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer told reporters.

“There’s not much you can do. You feel for him. He went out there, he battled for us under tough circumstances. I think we all appreciate it.”