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Saku Koivu of the Montreal Canadiens.
Named captain: September 1999
Number of seasons: 9 (10 years with the lockout)
Number of playoff appearances: 5
Number of series victories: 3
In the interest of full disclosure, Saku Koivu is not Jean Beliveau, nor will he ever be. I know there might be some confusion seeing as Koivu is a short-in-stature Finn and Beliveau is a veritable 6’3” behemoth in comparison from Trois-Rivières.
Still, even with the clear-cut differences in physical appearance and their respective games, the local Montreal media took it upon themselves to compare the two, with both having acted as captains of the Habs for 10 years. They even took offense to the fact that a European had a chance of usurping Beliveau as the longest-serving one in team history.
Obviously, the media didn’t run Koivu out of town, despite the attempts of a few over-zealous journalists to, at the very least, stir the pot over his inability to speak French. However, they did have an indirect role in Koivu leaving town as an underrated and generally unappreciated key figure in team history.
In truth, though, Koivu did captain some of the worst Habs teams in history, with 2000-01 standing out as the real low-point of his time with the title.
In 1998-99, Damphousse’s last season with the team, Montreal didn’t have a 20-goal scorer, but the team still managed 75 points. In 2000-01, only Brian Savage reached the low-water mark with 21 and Montreal earned just 70 points overall. The first-year Columbus Blue Jackets finished with 71.
Let that sink in for a moment: The Blue Jackets, whose futility knows no bounds currently, were better than Montreal back when they were supposed to be even worse. Indeed, a team that can’t get a simple thing like a mascot right, creating a bee that looks like a frog and a supposedly kid-friendly cannon with an undeniable phallic shape, sucked less than the Habs.
In any case, it was the second season in a row with Koivu as captain in which the team didn’t make the playoffs and the third in a row overall. Needless to say, Koivu entered into the 2001-02 season looking to get the team on the right track, put the team’s woes behind him…and then got diagnosed with cancer.
With the team’s best player sidelined indefinitely, Montreal continued to look to Koivu for inspiration and became an unlikely playoff contender. Then, with just a handful of games left in the season, Koivu made an improbable return to the lineup, ultimately leading the Habs into the playoffs and through the first round by upsetting the top-seeded Bruins.
Two years later, similar success followed, when the Habs again upset the Bruins in the first round, only to get swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
Finally, Koivu, who overcame a serious eye injury sustained in the third game of their 2005-06 first-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes (a series in which Montreal led two games to none, but then lost four straight without Koivu in the lineup), eventually helped the team secure the top spot in the Eastern Conference in 2007-08 and a first-round victory over the Bruins again.
Koivu never got the accolades he deserved and was thrust into the role of a first-line player, when, in truth, he was really a second-line one. Montreal never was able to get its hands on that ever-elusive big center, even trying to force the issue once he left by trading for Scott Gomez, who now incomprehensibly wears his number 11.
That’s not to suggest that Montreal should have retired Koivu’s number. Just that the two players couldn’t be more different despite the similar role they were intended to play on the team.
Koivu was a heart-and-soul type of player who always left it out on the ice. Gomez has trouble making it onto the ice at all. Koivu may have had the skills of a second-liner, but he always played over his head, reaching the 70-point plateau twice. Gomez, as a Hab, once went over a year without scoring a single goal.
Finally, when the Habs cut its ties to Scott Gomez–and they will–they’ll be shedding a contract that has proven to be more trouble than the player was ever worth. In Koivu, they lost an invaluable player who will never be able to be replaced.