Ever since Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher called his name at the draft podium back in the summer of 2010, Mikael Granlund has carried the hopes and dreams of an entire fan base on his young shoulders. That is a lot to bear for any young athlete, even more so when you consider that the fan base is the hockey-mad market of Minnesota. However, the young Finnish sensation has been more than capable of bearing the burden and has indeed thrived in the role of Minnesota’s hockey savior as we will go over in more detail below.
How successful could young Mikael Granlund’s career in the NHL be? In order to really determine this, let’s take a look at two other former first round picks of the Minnesota Wild: Marian Gaborik and Mikko Koivu. We’ll start with Koivu. After being drafted 6th overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Koivu played three seasons with TPS Turku in the SM-Liiga, Finland’s top pro hockey league. During his time there, the 6’2” center played 130 regular season games—scoring 17 goals and 40 assists for 57 points and a plus-14 rating. Mikko also played in 28 playoff games, chipping in three goals and 12 assists for 15 points. The younger Koivu brother then spent the 2004-2005 lockout playing for Minnesota’s minor league affiliate—the Houston Aeros—and saw his offensive production increase, scoring 20 goals and 28 assists for 48 points and a negative-1 rating in 67 regular season AHL games.
Since he first laced up the skates for Minnesota in the fall of 2005, Mikko Koivu has played in 488 games, scoring 108 goals and 253 assists for 361 points and is a career plus-24 rating. Koivu holds the Minnesota Wild franchise record for most assists in a game (4, which he has done twice in his career), is the first ever permanent captain in Wild history and is a one-time NHL All-Star. Koivu is the engine that keeps the Wild train going and is the heart and soul of the team. Certainly worthy of the 6th overall selection in this hockey writer’s humble opinion.
Now, let’s take a look at Marian Gaborik. The first draft pick in Minnesota Wild franchise history, the 3rd overall pick in 2000 was a vital cornerstone in the young franchise, even scoring the first goal in team history. Gaborik first played pro hockey during the 1998-1999 season with Dukla Trencin in the Slovak Extraliga, notching 20 points in 33 games as a rookie. The young 6’1” Slovak right wing then improved to 46 points in 50 games the following season (his draft year). After he was drafted, Minnesota felt that he was exactly the guy they needed to have on their team heading into their first NHL season. Since he took that first stride out on NHL ice, Gaborik has played over 722 games with Minnesota and the New York Rangers, scoring 324 goals and 323 assists for 647 points and is a plus-92.
Minnesota’s first legitimate superstar, Gaborik has hit 40+ goals three times and has scored at least 30 goals in a season four times, including his sophomore season that saw him pot 30 goals and chip in 37 assists for 67 points in 78 games. Gaborik has been named NHL Player of the Week once (October 21-27, 2002), has played in three NHL All-Star Games (2003, 2008, 2012), was named All-Star Game MVP once (2012), was the NHL First Star of the Week (January 7-14, 2008), was the NHL Second Star of the Week (December 18-25, 2011) and was named 2nd-All NHL Team Right Wing for 2012.
If you thought it was hard for Granlund to live up to Mikko Koivu, it’s even harder to live up to Marian Gaborik. However, Granlund is more than capable of doing so and here’s why. Granlund is entering his first NHL season not as a 17-18 year old pro rookie, but as a 20 year old pro hockey veteran. In three seasons with the SM-Liiga’s HIFK (partially owned by Minnesota Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom), Granlund has averaged nearly a point-per-game, scoring 41 goals and 86 assists for 127 points in 129 games. Before that, the talented 5’10” center dominated Finnish juniors over the course of two seasons with 43 goals and 63 assists for 106 points in 66 games. In addition to playing pro hockey in what is arguably the best hockey league in the world outside of the NHL, Granlund also suited up in 21 games for the Houston Aeros this season, scoring eight goals and 13 assists for 21 points and a negative-4 rating.
Granlund has also been quite impressive on the international stage, scoring 11 goals and 36 assists for 47 points in 31 games on the World Junior level and two goals and 11 assists for 13 points in 16 games against men. He scored just two goals against men? Yes—but one is on a postage stamp in Finland! Skating at full speed behind the net while eluding two Russian defenders, Mikael scooped the puck onto the blade of his stick and scraped it off the crossbar into the back of the net. It was this moment that officially lifted him to elite status in the eyes of hockey fans, management and scouts around the world. His performance during the 2011 World Championship was a key component in Finland winning the gold medal.
The fact of the matter is that, like his mentor Mikko Koivu, Granlund makes those around him better. He isn’t the fastest skater or the toughest player, but he has a hockey I.Q. that is absolutely off the charts. The way he sees the game, he’s one or two plays ahead of everyone else on the ice. His passing and puck handling skills are unparalleled and he always finds ways to astound opposing skaters and goaltenders. What’s more, he’s unbelievably deadly in the shootout. To put it simply, Mikael Granlund is a goaltender’s worst nightmare and a Minnesota Wild fan’s best dream come true.
I know what you’re thinking: okay, okay the kid is good, but can he be great? In a word—yes. While he is slightly undersized, which a lot of fans are skeptical about, no one can deny that he has greatness written in bold, underlined words all over him. I think it’s fair to say he’ll never be a 40+ goal scorer, but that’s not his game anyway. Granlund is a dangling, playmaking specialist that will likely see a 40%/60% split in yearly points as to goals versus assists. Granlund is basically a smaller, more talented and dynamic version of Mikko Koivu. Considering his talent and how well he has performed while playing pro hockey in Finland and in the AHL, if he’s healthy, Granlund could easily put up numbers at around a point-per-game.
Another thing to keep in mind is that for much of Koivu’s and Gaborik’s careers, they haven’t had a great supporting cast around them. Not so for Granlund as he enters the NHL. Minnesota has Zach Parise, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, a host of forward depth in the bottom six and several top forward prospects vying for roster spots. The blue line is beginning to look promising with Ryan Suter, Tom Gilbert, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and top defensive prospects Jonas Brodin and Mathew Dumba. Also, Minnesota will be rock solid in net for years to come with the current goalies and top prospects in the system. Granlund doesn’t have to be “the guy” for Minnesota like Gaborik and Koivu have had to be in the past, which makes his job as Minnesota’s top prospect a lot easier. As his career progresses, he’ll go from having Cullen and Setoguchi as his finishers to guys like Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle or Mario Lucia. He’ll have Matt Dumba on the power play point who will gladly blast home every puck he’s fed. Granlund will have a talented group of guys around him whose level of play will only elevate every time he jumps over the boards onto the ice.
In short, Wild fans can be sure that the young man wearing #64 will most likely have a long and illustrious NHL career that should see All-Star recognition, a near point-per-game average, highlight-reel goals, dekes and dangles, plenty of deep playoff runs and, hopefully, a Stanley Cup or two for Minnesota. That’s not too much to ask, is it?