Heading into the 2012 offseason the Minnesota Wild didn’t have much left in the positivity tank. They had gone from leading the NHL in points on December 17th to finishing 12th in the Western Conference. Their chronically feeble offense had sputtered yet again, ranking dead last in goals per game with 2.02, and worst of all, they would be watching the postseason from home for the fourth consecutive season.
The organization wasn’t at a complete loss though. General Manager Chuck Fletcher had managed to accomplish something that his predecessor, Doug Risebrough, continually failed at; fill the cupboard with high ceiling prospects. Potential impact players such as Charlie Coyle (acquired in the Brent Burns trade with San Jose), Jason Zucker and Jonas Brodin had initiated a new era when they signed their entry level contracts with the club. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, the Minnesota Wild appeared to have a promising young core.
But there was one piece of the puzzle that was still missing. While the Wild had collected an array of prospects there was one that stood out from the rest. Regarded as one of the top prospects in the entire world, Mikael Granlund had Wild fans waiting anxiously for two years for him to announce his impending move to the organization. Then, on May 23rd, 2012, they were greeted with the following video on the Wild’s official website.
Struggling to Adapt
As is the case with any elite prospect, Minnesota Wild fans (and the NHL community as a whole) expected a lot out of Granlund in his rookie season. Despite being just 21 years old he had three years of professional experience under his belt thanks to playing with HIFK in Finland’s SM-liiga. In those three seasons he was nothing short of sensational, accumulating 127 points (41 goals, 86 assists) in 127 regular season games. But it wasn’t necessarily his production in Finland that grabbed international attention. Instead it was his performance in successive World Championships (and one ridiculous goal) that thrust him into the spotlight.
Luckily for Granlund the spotlight in Minnesota had somewhat diminished by the time the start of the season rolled around. The lockout had deflated the anticipation of his arrival (at least until the announcement that there would be an NHL season came around) and the signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in free agency meant that he was no longer the star attraction entering the season. The hope was that these events would lift the pressure off of the 21 year old’s shoulders and allow him to hit the ground running.
All of those hopes and dreams came crashing down when one thing became painfully obvious early on in the season; Granlund was significantly over-matched on the NHL ice. His lack of speed and strength was apparent anytime an opposing player harassed him. The vision and playmaking ability he had displayed in Finland and the world stage was negated by the lack of space and time that he had grown accustomed to. He was noticeably rattled, and so were the fans.
By the time the Minnesota Wild limped into the playoffs Mikael Granlund was nowhere in sight. He had gone from 2nd line centerman at the start the season to playing in the AHL with the Houston Aeros. In his 27 games with the Wild he managed just eight points (two goals, six assists) and a number of questions (few valid, most ludicrous) from fans regarding his NHL legitimacy.
An Off-season of Change
There was no one more frustrated with Mikael Granlund’s play than Granlund himself. In the off-season he had returned to Finland and began training with fellow Finish NHLers. One of those players just so happened to be Teemu Selanne who said the following to the Star Tribune’s Michael Russo: “I know for a fact the way the year went last year, he was so disappointed and, I don’t want to say angry, but disappointed with himself.”
That disappointment led to a complete overhaul of his training regiment. His main focus turned to strengthening his legs and gaining speed in order to keep up with the NHL style of play. When he joined the Wild for training camp he was noticeably bigger and his brand of game displayed that evolution. The skill and hockey IQ were still there, but this time it was accompanied by a body that could handle the physical rigors of playing against bigger and stronger competition.
Despite these changes Granlund lost out on the 2nd line center position to fellow 2nd year pro Charlie Coyle. While Granlund floundered in his rookie season Coyle excelled. Playing on the top line with Koivu and Parise for the majority of the season, Coyle had 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 37 games and garnered praise for his physical style of play. This success naturally gave Coyle a head-start in the position battle and pushed Granlund to the wing for the start of the 2013-14 season.
The move wouldn’t last long though. Just two games into the season Coyle suffered a sprained knee that would sideline him for 3-4 weeks. Granlund returned to the spot where he started his NHL career at and by the time Coyle returned to action there no doubt as to who would have the spot for the remainder of the season.
Return to Savior Status
By the time the first month of the season ended Granlund had already matched his point total from his rookie season (eight) in just 13 games. Although he was still shy when it came to putting the puck on net (he had only 14 shots on goal in the month) he was undoubtedly the Wild’s best distributor. He had also found a kindred spirit in Jason Pominville who had a knack for finding open ice in which Granlund could feather a saucer pass to. It was a pair made in Wild heaven.
November wasn’t nearly as successful for Granlund as he only managed to accumulate four points in 11 games and wound up on the IR after suffering a few blows to head in the matter of a week and a half. When he finally did manage to return on December 23rd he hit the ground running, tallying a point in three straight games.
It was at this point in the season that a discussion began to surface regarding Granlund and fellow Finn Mikko Koivu. Throughout the year Granlund had displayed a knack for providing consistent offensive pressure on the opposition despite having a rotating cast of linemates. Koivu and his top line compatriots on the other hand appeared to be uninspired. For prolonged periods they seemed to be completely ineffective and failed to accomplish their primary goal; dominate the puck.
The cries for head coach Mike Yeo to separate the duo of Parise and Koivu grew louder and louder with each passing game until Parise went down with an ankle injury. With the cries stymied Granlund continued on his path towards legitimacy. He and Pominville carried the Wild’s offense for stretches and his ice time reflected just how important he had become to the organization.
On January 4th the Minnesota Wild’s trajectory shifted. Captain Mikko Koivu had suffered a fractured ankle while blocking a shot, sidelining him for at least four weeks. The top line needed a center and there was only one man that could fill it; Mikael Granlund.
Life on the Top Line
Prior to Koivu’s injury the Wild had sustained a decent season despite dealing with significant injuries (Brodin, Parise, etc). They were well within the playoff hunt, going 22-7-5 (.557 point %), and were allowing 2.45 goals per game. The offense still suffered through stretches of ineffectiveness, posting just 2.27 goals per game, but it hadn’t been a devastating factor.
Since Granlund’s move to the top line the Wild have been undeniably better. They’ve gone 15-7-5 (.648 points %), are allowing just 2.29 goals per contest and are scoring 2.67 goals per game. Whether that can be entirely attributed to Granlund’s promotion is debatable, but it’s undeniable that it is a contributing factor. It’s also apparent that it’s not just the team that has benefited from the move. His linemates have flourished as well.
Although Jason Pominville has played beside Granlund for the majority of the season he has seen his numbers jump since joining him on the first line. Prior to the Koivu injury he had 29 points in 45 games (.64 points per game). Post-Koivu injury he has boosted that total to 22 points in 27 games (.82 points per game).
When Zach Parise finally returned from his injury on January 23rd he received the Granlund boost as well. In their 20 games together Parise has 19 points (9 goals, 10 assists). His pre-Granlund numbers of 27 points in 37 games are impressive, but on a per game level, his numbers with Granlund beats out his per game numbers with Koivu by .22.
But most importantly Granlund has lifted his game to another level. Before his move to the top line he had tallied 17 points in 31 games, giving him .55 points per game. Since the move he has 21 points in just 27 games, good for .78 points per game. Even looking beyond the numbers he has appeared grow. There are games where it is quite obvious that he is the best forward on the ice. Anytime he touches the puck there is a chance that something special could be on the way, and that’s something the Wild has lacked for most of its existence.
Perhaps the pinnacle of Granlund’s season didn’t even take place in the NHL. Instead it was reached in Sochi where he was voted onto the Olympic all tournament team after posting seven points for the bronze winning Finnish team. His performance even caused several pundits to claim that he was the breakout star of the tournament. And who could really argue with that sentiment? As a 22 year old he had lined up across from some of the world’s elite players and beaten them. It truly was a transcendent moment Granlund, and it likely won’t be the last one.
With 10 games remaining on the Wild’s schedule they will likely look towards Granlund to offer them something they haven’t had in five seasons; a chance to compete with the elite. For years they’ve lacked a dynamic offensive creator that is necessary to excel in the playoffs. With the emergence of Granlund they might have found just that.