On Thursday the Minnesota Wild signed Finnish Elite League forward Michael Keränen (pronounced Mee-KAH-el) to a one-year, two-way contract. At 24-years-old, Elite Prospects tags him as a “late bloomer.” The 2013-14 season was his fourth playing for Ilves Tampere and his best. He averaged a point per game, posting 17 goals and 35 assists in 52 games.
Michael Keränen, Another Finnesotan
Swedish-born, he, like a growing contingency on the Wild, grew up in Finland and represents Finland in international hockey. The 6-foot-1, 176-pounder lines up on wing, though has some experience at center and is “a fast and flashy dangler who likes to challenge the opponents,” according to Elite Prospects. In his first two elite league seasons he totaled 11 points, notching 27 in his third, before posting a number of personal bests this season.
Additionally, he was the recipient of the 2013-14 Golden Helmet Award (voted for by the players) as the best player in the Finnish League, the Lasse Oksanen Award as the best player during the regular season, and was an All-Star.
Finding a Role
By all accounts Keränen fits best on any team in a top 6 role. He’s an offensively-minded puck distributor and maybe not a great fit in a third or fourth line role. His somewhat slender frame is a contributing factor there in many assessments.
I hate to feed the notion that gets thrown around pretty flippantly, where if a players weighs under 200 pounds that means he must bulk up before going pro in North America. While it’s true a lot of the time, this isn’t the universal truth it’s often assumed to be.
Nonetheless, this might be true of Keränen, despite being a tough player who has a reputation for fighting hard along the boards. If you’ve seen any of his highlights (see below) you’ll have seen him drive the net with some power.
His size was the knock on him when he entered the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and went undrafted, despite being ranked 102nd among European skaters that year. He’ll certainly spend some of the offseason working on getting strength and size as he trains with the Granlund brothers and other notable Finnish North American players in Finland.
With his point explosion this season, Keränen gives the Wild a player with potential upside who could find a role in the NHL this season. The team must think he’s got a decent shot at making the team, as the HIFK announced on their site that if Keränen does not make the Wild, he will be returned to HIFK instead of being sent to Iowa. Michael Russo of the Star Tribune tweeted out that the Wild have told him “that arrangement is untrue.”
So, what are the implications? It does seem that the Wild are making an extra hard push with free agents since late in the season. The signings of Zack Mitchell and Brady Brassart added some offensive depth in the AHL and the signing of former UMASS Lowell d-man Christian Folin completes a nice set of young defenseman who will battle for open spots in the NHL this fall.
Now they’ve signed Keränen.
There’s no hard evidence of anything, unless you’ve gone Porky’s on Fletcher’s office, but it’s possible this has implications on Fletcher and Brent Flahr’s plans for the draft. Acquiring three forwards and a defenseman might make it easier for the team to stomach the roll of the dice that is taking a goaltender early in the draft.
With the uncertainty the Wild has in net and the possibility that the team will be carrying three goaltenders in the NHL next season — as Fletcher mentioned at the end of the season and again in Friday’s press conference officially announcing coach Mike Yeo’s contract extension — means the Wild need to find a way to add goaltending depth beyond Johan Gustafsson.
Some have suggested that re-signing John Curry is a good move. I’m skeptical. While Curry had an outstanding game in his one appearance with the Wild, he started last season playing for the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL, years removed from his last NHL appearance, and the team’s actions late in the season indicated that the team didn’t really trust him. Furthermore, at 30-years-old, Curry’s upside is limited and the team needs a goaltending compliment for Darcy Kuemper in the post-Backstrom/Harding era. If they draft a player like Demko, who could remain at BC next season, maybe Curry could serve in tandem with Gustafsson in the AHL, but that’s going pretty deep down the speculative rabbit hole. In short: Curry could return, but he’s not the solution.
Maybe it’s Demko, the #1 ranked North American goaltender. The Wild will get the 18th selection in the draft, which is a little high to draft Demko. He’s figuring more in the mid- to late-20s in most mock drafts, if not later. (NHL.com has him at 28th and 30th pick in two separate mock drafts, TSN ranks him at 53 among all prospects and had him unranked prior to March, he goes 29th in Bleacher Report, 49th in Draft Site.) Taking Demko at 18 may be a little early, but there’s always the chance they trade down and take Demko.
Still Reading Too Deep
Should Keränen prove NHL ready, it may open up some trade possibilities during the season for the Wild as well. It might allow for them to make a deal involving a top forward prospect like Jason Zucker, who faces an uphill battle to find time on a Wild squad that saw a lot of young forward development this season. Players like Justin Fontaine and Erik Haula appear to have passed him on the depth chart while Zucker continued to struggle with his defensive game. While healthy, he was never able to carve out a role in the NHL, causing some people to dub I-35 between Minneapolis and Des Moines the Jason Zucker Expressway. Zucker was later sidelined when he suffered a season-ending quad injury.
This is a lot speculation that slots Keränen into existing discussion on hot topics of what the Wild will do and need to do with the offseason. Lest we forget Occam’s Razor, it’s a one-year contract to a player who just had the best season of his career.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.