Once the roster were announced for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics Men’s Hockey Tournament, I was excited for the rest of the hockey world to get to see the growth and development of the Minnesota Wild’s Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. Both young forwards have enjoyed international tournament success in the World Junior Classic tournaments and international professional league play. Now on hockey’s largest international stage both are being featured in prominent roles for their home countries of Finland and Switzerland.
It is easy to lose sight of the fact that both Granlund and Niederreiter are each just 21 years old because they have been relevant to Minnesota Wild and NHL fans for nearly 4 years now. Granlund and Niederreiter were both top 10 draft picks in the 2010 NHL draft, the expectations and hype have only built since their selection. Although both of these young forwards have yet to play a full season at the NHL level, their star power in their home countries and elite level talent/potential has created a huge following of fans internationally.
— nino niederreiter (@thelnino25) February 9, 2014
Mikael Granlund has Rockstar Type Following in Finland
In Granlund the Wild had to be patient as he delayed his arrival to North America to complete required military service in his native of Finland. Affectionately referred to as “Finnish Jesus” here in the State of Hockey, the young Finnish center has flourished in his sophomore season with the Wild after struggling during last year’s lockout shortened NHL season. When it was announced that Wild/Finland captain Mikko Koivu would not participate in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, it once again meant Granlund would be the next man up to replace his mentor. Granlund has been playing increased minutes in an elevated prominent role attempting to fill the huge void created when the Wild lost Kaptain Koivu to a broken ankle. Now Granlund has be assigned to Team Finland’s top line in Sochi which is a testament to his work ethic in rebounding from a disappointing rookie NHL season.
Beyond Granlund’s offensive abilities with the puck which he has become so well known for, he has proven capable of playing a physical brand of hockey in the defensive zone despite his lack of size. Granlund is so smart on the ice having learned the importance of winning puck battles on the fore check at the NHL level. The growth of Granlund’s overall game has been so impressive with the Wild this season compared to his struggles last year and it has carried over to success in Sochi. Through 3 games Granlund is leading Team Finland in shots on goal with 14, average minutes per game for a forward with 18:33, total minutes played by a forward with 55:40, and is currently tied for the lead in several other categories.
Granlund has been playing on the top line at the left wing position with Florida Panthers 2013 1st round draft pick 18 year old Alexsander Barkov as his center and Finnish legend 42 year old right winger Teemu Selanne. Granlund will most likely be asked to move to the center position in Team Finland’s quarterfinal matchup on Wednesday the 19th with Team Russia because Barkov injured his knee in the win against Norway is expected to out of action 4 to 6 weeks. The change in roles for Granlund should not be a hardship but it will most definitely change the style of play for him in Sochi.
Granlund has been much more aggressive shooting the puck through 3 games in the Olympics than he has displayed in Minnesota this year. Now playing center, I believe Granlund will look to be much more of a playmaker feeding the puck to Selanne and whoever is elevated to fill the left wing spot. The other alternative could be to elevate Olli Jokinen to the top line center position keeping Granlund at left wing against the Russians.
Finland beats Norway, 6-1. Granlund with 17:50 TOI. Next game for FIN is Sunday vs. Canada at 11 a.m. central. pic.twitter.com/DEo5ewMTQ1
— Minnesota Wild (@mnwild) February 14, 2014
Granlund has made good on his potential and promise as the face of Finnish hockey’s new generation while playing on the top line with the hero of his home country Selanne during his farewell tour. Granlund’s star keeps rising in his home nation and here in the State of Hockey and his performance in Sochi is just scratching the surface of his immense potential. Assuming Granlund returns to Minnesota healthy, he could very well pick up where he left off centering Parise and Jason Pominville on the Wild’s new look top line.
Nino “KnightRider” Niederreiter Heads to Sochi on Hot Streak
Upon arrival in a 2013 draft day trade, Niederreiter became the mystery man among the Wild’s many young forwards. The rumors surrounding his failure to launch as a highly touted prospect for the New York Islanders sparked many perspectives on who was at fault and why it had not worked out for the young Swiss power forward on Long Island. Since his arrival in the State of Hockey the 21 year old Niederreiter has been nothing but humble and hard working.
Here in Minnesota Niederreiter is otherwise known as “El Nino” or my personal favorite “KnightRider” but no matter the preference of nickname, he has become a fan favorite which has been important for the Wild fan base given that his arrival meant the departure of Cal Clutterbuck. Niederreiter has proven to be a far more well-rounded and versatile hockey player than Wild fans expected upon word of the trade being completed.
Beyond the collection of highlight reel goals generated during Niederreiter’s World Junior Hockey Classic career or his past American Hockey League play with Bridgeport, he has proven to be a very strong two way forward for the Wild this year. Niederreiter very early in camp this season flashed very good vision and passing skills finding veteran winger Dany Heatley in scoring areas frequently.
I have found myself very impressed with Niederreiter’s demeanor and mentality here in Minnesota as he obviously has focused on a remedy to whatever caused his issues in the Islanders organization. Niederreiter is on track to realizing his NHL potential this year with the Wild.
Niederreiter has been successful playing on each of the Wild’s top three lines this year and was especially important once his role was increased with injuries to Koivu and Parise. There is no indication Niederreiter will relinquish his increased role and ice time even when the Wild returns to its full complement of players either. The pressure will be Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher to clear the way for the young forwards as the roster space gets tight after the olympics into the NHL trade deadline.
Niederreiter has carried over his impressive play with the Wild to success in Sochi with Team Switzerland on their top line. Niederreiter has been strong in both ends for the Swiss through 3 games despite being held off the score sheet. The Swiss have scored only 3 goals in 3 games and given up 1 goal playing a style that would cause Jacques Lemaire to blush.
Niederreiter has been impactful in each of Team Switzerland’s 3 games so far to include nearly scoring the game winner on Saturday versus the Czech Republic with mere seconds left in a scoreless game. The goal was eventually awarded to Simon Bodenmann the Swiss player who attempted to pass the puck to Niederreiter who was crashing the net but make no mistake about it that goal happened because of the “KnightRider” willing his team to victory.
Through 3 games for the Swiss, Niederreiter was their leading forward in minutes per game with 17:18, total minutes played 51:55, and shots on goal with 10. The Swiss will face Latvia on Tuesday February 18th with the winner to play Team Canada in the Quarterfinals on Wednesday February 19th. The way the Swiss have played they could be very capable of shocking the world playing the role of spoiler should they make it past Latvia.
— Minnesota Wild (@mnwild) February 12, 2014
Granlund and Niederreiter have represented themselves, the Minnesota Wild, and their countries of origin masterfully through the first 3 games of Olympic Tournament play in Sochi. Not to under sell the impact and performance of Wild superstars and Team USA leaders Parise and Ryan Suter but these two young forwards are truly carrying their teams in Sochi and Craig Leipold has to be thrilled at their impact and performance. Upon their return to Minnesota, the Wild should benefit from the confidence and experience gained by Granlund and Niederreiter playing against the world’s best.