After the lockout shortened last season, many hockey fans were keenly focused on Minnesota Wild forward Mikael Granlund. The Wild have drafted well and have a very deep prospect pool. Many analysts expected Granlund to emerge as a top six forward out of this group of youngsters last season.
Despite these lofty expectations, Granlund had a disappointing rookie campaign. He began on a high note when Granlund scored in his first NHL game with the Wild. This was only the second time in NHL history when a debuting player scored his first NHL goal in the first game of the season for his club.
Unfortunately for Wild fans, this excitement soured as it would not be matched for the remainder of the season. Granlund scored his only other goal in mid-April finishing the season with just two goals and six assists in twenty-seven games. Granlund was eventually demoted to the fourth line last season and was assigned to the Houston Aeros, the Wild’s former minor-league affiliate.
That was then and this is now. Granlund has drastically improved his game this year and is contributing to the Wild offense on a regular basis. His production thus far has many folks excited in the state of hockey. Granlund has tons of potential that is coming to fruition. His strong play has many eager to see what he can do in his first full-length season in the NHL. His continued development is crucial to the success of the Wild this year as the club looks to make a deeper playoff run.
Mikael Granlund’s Early Hockey Career
Granlund has a history of scoring big points throughout his hockey career. As a member of the Finnish Elite League, Granlund tallied forty-one goals and eighty-six assists in just one hundred and twenty-nine career games. This computes to 0.98 points per game in the top professional league in Finland and one of the premier hockey leagues in all of Europe.
The young forward had similar success in the AHL last year where he notched 0.97 points per game. He scored ten goals and had eighteen helpers in twenty-nine games. He has had similar or better offensive numbers while playing on teams at other levels through his playing career.
He was selected ninth overall by Minnesota in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. NHL Central Scouting ranked Mikael Granlund as the top international skater. Many ranked Granlund ahead of current St. Louis Blues’ forward Vladimir Tarasenko and Washington Capital’s draft choice Evgeny Kuznetsov who now plays in the KHL.
With these high marks and praises, many hockey minds believed that Granlund’s game would quickly assimilate to the NHL. Analysts compared Granlund’s skill set to that of Saku Koivu of the Anaheim Ducks. Some criticized Granlund’s size but there was a high level of excitement about Granlund’s first NHL season. Expectations were high last season but his rookie year fell well short of the bar. It became clear that Granlund needed to improve his game in order to meet expectations at the NHL level.
Why This Year is Different
His rookie season was disappointing but that is in the past. Granlund arrived at training camp this past September looking to move forward. After a summer where the youngster worked out with other NHL veterans to improve his game, Granlund arrived prepared, refreshed, and hungry to play.
Head coach Mike Yeo noted that Granlund came to camp with improvements on his competitive drive, speed and puck control. These three areas were causes of concern last year. The NHL is obviously much faster and more competitive than the leagues. Granlund recognized the need for an adjustment and he worked hard to improve in these areas during the offseason. His hard work paid off as the Wild coaching staff and his teammates noted Granlund’s improvement right out of the gate. The forward has built upon this foundation in the early stages of the season and he has become a regular contributor on the Wild offense.
Another factor that has helped Granlund’s game this season is the fact that the pressure isn’t quite as thick as it was last season. Many pegged Granlund to be an instant top-six forward. When Granlund didn’t deliver there were other youngsters who stepped up and took on some of the focus. Forward Charlie Coyle and defenseman Jonas Brodin had solid rookie campaigns that drew attention to Minnesota’s prospects as a whole.
This focus on the youth has continued this season. In addition to Charlie Coyle, young forwards such as Justin Fontaine, and new-comer Nino Niederreiter have also garnered attention due to their solid play this season. Granlund is part of the Wild’s offensive youth movement and he is in the midst of a competition with this group of young forwards. This competitive environment has brought out the best in this group and it has served Granlund’s game very well so far this season.
[See Also: The Prospect Report: Mikael Granlund]
Granlund’s Game is Beginning to Translate at the NHL Level
In just eighteen games so far, Granlund has already surpassed his point total in the twenty-seven games he played last season. Granlund has scored twice and he has ten assists. He is just one assist behind defenseman Ryan Suter who leads the team with eleven assists. Granlund’s twelve points has him tied for third overall on the club with Wild captain Mikko Koivu.
During the last ten games, one of the most consistent even strength lines for the Wild has been that of Jason Pominville, Nino Niederreiter, and Mikael Granlund. This line has been an offensive juggernaut for the Wild. Pominville was recently named one of the NHL stars of the week and Granlund has played a big role in his success.
Another impressive note for Granlund this season has been his plus/minus stats. In the early season Granlund has earned a plus 5 in this statistical category. By comparison, Granlund finished last season at a minus four. The fact that Granlund is a plus five so far in this young season shows that his overall defensive game is improving. It remains to be seen if he can sustain this pace throughout the season, but his improvement in this area is a good sign.
Finally, Granlund’s game has led to an increased role on the power play. The power play has vastly improved so far this year with former Wild forward Andrew Brunette at the helm. Minnesota currently has the third-best power play in the NHL. While Granlund is looking to tally more goals, four out of his ten assists have been on the power play. These goals will come for Granlund if he continues the consistent play he’s put forth so far this season.
Mikael Granlund has stepped his game up in the early-going of the 2013-2014 season. After a disappointing rookie campaign the young forward used the offseason to improve his game. He arrived at training camp ready to prove the naysayers wrong and he has done just that so far this season.
A major reason for the Wild’s early success this season is the consistent play of the club’s group of young forwards. While attention has shifted from Granlund to this group as a whole, a competitive environment has brought out the best in these players. The youngsters have meshed well with the squad’s veterans in the early phases of this season.
The success of the Wild this season hinges upon the play of the youth. If this group can continue to develop and provide consistent offensive production, the Wild are well-positioned to again qualify for the playoffs and make a deeper run at the end of the season.
Tim joined The Hockey Writers in July 2013. He began his tenure with THW by covering the Minnesota Wild and he now writes on the Buffalo Sabres. Tim completed his undergraduate and graduate work at the University at Buffalo. In addition, he is a published historian and a Baltimore Orioles Contributing Writer for LegendsOnDeck.com. Tim’s work for THW has been featured on sites such as Yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @TOHockeyTHW