Koivu captain courageous

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:33 AM ET

Saku Koivu got it half right. The Montreal Canadiens captain caused a buzz before training camp when he was quoted saying the Habs would make the playoffs, but they wouldn't win the Stanley Cup.

Koivu later said what he meant was this year's edition of the team was good enough to make the playoffs, but wouldn't be considered a Stanley Cup contender. Koivu was slammed by Montreal's media for daring to say the Habs' 25th Stanley Cup is still a long way away.

It is.

You could say he's being overly optimistic predicting this team will make the playoffs. So, he pretty much can't win.

"I think Saku should have stuck with the 20-second clip instead of going for the 40-second clip," said Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey.

The gritty captain, who has a heart as big as the CH on his chest, is always going to be in the middle of whatever latest story is swirling around the club.

For years now, the Canadiens have been a lot like their captain: Gritty and determined, but not quite big enough to run with the NHL's big horses.

Koivu, who will be 33 in November, will have to have another career year this season if Les Glorieux are going to have a shot at making the playoffs, which they missed on the last weekend of the regular season last spring.

After battling and winning his dramatic fight with cancer in 2002, making his return one of the most memorable moments in Canadiens history (and that's saying a lot), Koivu had a career-best 75 points last season.

"When he came back after missing most of the season with stomach cancer, it was just like he had a cold," I remember former Canadiens defenceman Sheldon Souray saying. "He never complained."

At this time last year, Koivu was in the Canadiens training camp, not sure of his career or the quality of his life, again.

In the first round of the playoffs in 2006, he had taken the stick of Carolina Hurricanes forward Justin Williams under the visor and into his eye. Once again, Canadiens fans were stunned into silence as Koivu staggered off the ice.

The incident left him with a cataract and a permanent blind spot.

The incident also underlined Koivu's value to this team. The Canadiens were up 2-0 in the series on the Hurricanes when Koivu went down. The Habs then lost four straight.

Now, as he enters his 13th season, Koivu finds himself as the key veteran on this team and the leader on so many different levels.

The Canadiens failed to attract a big-name free agent in the off-season to support Koivu. More weight than ever will be on Koivu's shoulders as this franchise retrenches around him.

He made an interesting comment to veteran hockey writer Red Fisher just before training camp opened.

"The top (free agents) made their choice and they're not here and I don't have a problem with them not being here. Don't get me wrong. It would be nice to get one ... to get the best possible team, but that's not the case right now."

That could be interpreted as being critical of Gainey's inability to sign help, but any player in Koivu's position would feel that way. The time for guys who are 33 to win is right now. Koivu vision might be less than 100%, but he's not blind. He sees what is going on.

Koivu saw his best friend on the club, defenceman Craig Rivet, traded at the deadline last year. Now Souray is gone.

This team is rebuilding without daring to say so.

Koivu was being the good captain when he said he thinks the improvement in the club's young players will make the Habs a playoff team this year.

"We had this great first half last season, but in the second half there were nights when we were just OK and we lost those games," he said. "Now, being a year older, and guys having more experience and adding some of those guys, hopefully we'll turn those games around."

The Habs have to hope he's right.

Saku Koivu

Age: 32

Born: Nov. 23, 1974, Torku, Finland

Position: Centre

Shoots: Left

Height: 5-foot-10

Weight: 187 pounds

Experience: 11th NHL season

Drafted: Montreal's first choice, 21st overall in 1993

Career notes: Winner of Bill Masterton Trophy in 2001-02 after missing 79 games with non-Hodgkin intra-abdominal lymphoma).

Named Canadiens' captain in 1999-2000; named to Olympic all-star team in 2006

NHL numbers: Regular season -- 159 goals and 376 assists in 650 games. Playoffs -- 13 goals and 23 assists.


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