The quiet leader

Mikko Koivu is off to a fantastic start to the NHL season, ranking fourth in the league in assists (13), and leading the Minnesota Wild in scoring with 15 points in 12 games.

He won't admit it, but Mikko Koivu is having a breakout season for Minnesota

Mikko Koivu is flying under the radar, and that's just the way he likes it.

Koivu, 25, is off to a fantastic start to the NHL season, ranking fourth in the league in assists (13), and leading the Minnesota Wild in scoring with 15 points in 12 games. His best effort came on Oct. 16 when he registered a five-point night (including a franchise-tying record four assists) in a 6-2 win over the Florida Panthers

The Finnish star missed 24 games of the 2007-08 campaign after being slashed in the leg by Vancouver Canucks defenceman Mattias Ohlund, but if he can stay healthy this season and maintain this pace, he'll easily better his career-highs in goals (20), assists (34) and points (54).

Minnesota's first-round pick (No. 6 overall) in the 2001 NHL draft, Koivu is showing definite signs of developing into the two-way centre the Wild hoped he would always become with his poise, his solid play in the defensive end and his strength inside the face-off circle.

The critics all agree — Koivu is having a breakout season.

But to hear Koivu tell it, he's looked pretty average, his brilliant early-season form propped up by the fact that the Wild currently sit in first place in the Northwest Division and third overall in the Western Conference.

"When the team is winning and people look at out our point total, it makes you look pretty good even when you haven't been your best. Things are going well for the team, and for me I guess, but it's only 12 games in and there's a lot of work to do," Koivu told

Modesty aside, there's no denying the soft-spoken Koivu is playing the best hockey of his four-year NHL career.

He's also taken on more of a leadership role on the ice during a critical time for the club, especially with winger Marian Gaborik and defenceman Brent Burns sidelined with injuries, and forwards Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra lost to free agency in the summer.

Still, the six-foot-two, 216-pound native of Turku, Finland is reticent to admit he's doing anything special or become more of a team leader.

"I'm just trying to play the way I can. I don't think I've changed anything from last season," Koivu explained.

"We lost a couple of guys in the summer and a couple of guys are hurt right now, so it might seem that way but I'm doing the same things I've always done in my career — play smart hockey. I've always tried to do that in the past, but of course I always want to get better."

Minnesota has a tradition of rotating captains on a monthly basis, and last week the club announced Koivu would wear the "C" for the second consecutive month in November. Koivu concedes it was "a big honour," but he found himself at a loss when asked what qualities he felt he had that led to him retaining the captain's armband.

"I don't know. You'd have to ask my teammates. I guess they respect what I do on the ice — that I be myself and do what comes natural to me," Koivu said.

The respect his teammates have for him will surely grow if he keeps carrying himself with the same quiet dignity and if he keeps doing "what comes natural" on the ice.