Today is the last day of August, meaning we’re a little less than two weeks away from the start of NHL training camps across North America. That’s right–get excited!
There’s been a major turnover in players in Minnesota and, while the bottom-6 forward group finally seems to have found its gritty identity, the top-6 is in a major state of flux. The Wild lost essentially an entire second line due to trades and departures in free agency. Gone are Matt Cullen, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Devin Setoguchi and Cal Clutterbuck, leaving a bunch of young 20-23 year olds in their place. With trade deadline acquisition Jason Pominville likely skating on the top line with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu, that leaves Dany Heatley with two of Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter as line two.
Now, the plus side is that all four of these youngsters have tremendously high ceilings. Coyle and Zucker both had considerable success in Minnesota’s top-6 last season and most likely have the inside track on any open spots on the wing. However, Granlund is being counted on to come into camp ready to take his place as second line center. But can he do it? Coyle has no qualms with moving to center if he has to. Fortunately, there are a few things going in the Fantastic Finn’s favor.
Granlund has proven he’s a winner and a point producer at every level of play outside the NHL so far. In 129 games against grown men in Finland’s SM-Liiga, Granlund scored 41 goals and 86 assists for 127 points and a plus-37 rating. Compare that to Mikko Koivu’s 22 goals and 46 assists for 68 points and plus-20 rating in 161 games in the same league. Now that’s impressive. Then he (Granlund) comes over and plays 29 games in the AHL last year, scoring 10 goals and 18 assists for 28 points and a negative-1 rating. By then, it certainly seemed he was more than used to playing on North American ice.
After scoring a tip-in off a Jared Spurgeon shot on opening night, Granlund would add just one goal and six assists for a total of eight points and a negative-4 rating in 27 games spanning a couple of call-ups and demotions. Not exactly what you’d call spectacular, but still better than your typical Wild rookie of years past scoring two goals and two assists and nothing else for the rest of his time with the big club (Casey Wellman or Cody Almond, anyone?). However, Minnesota’s one-time top prospect seemed to be surpassed by Swedish Sensation Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle and even Jason Zucker, who didn’t play as many games or score as many points as Granlund, but had a knack for scoring big goals. Even rookie goalie Darcy Kuemper’s stellar play in net dwarfed Granlund’s performance in the eyes of many.
I know it doesn’t seem like an advantage, but here’s where I get to it, so bear with me. With the lockout, there was no training camp and there were no preseason games. Instead, the youngsters and big free agent additions got a 53-game “pre-preseason” to get ready for this season. Granlund, like the other rookies (and this is where the playing field does even out, but it’s still an advantage for him), will now come into camp with a season’s worth of AHL and NHL experience from last year, and will have time to develop chemistry with his potential line-mates and straighten out any kinks there might be.
Another factor is that Matt Cullen isn’t there to back him up as second line center. It’s either Granlund or Coyle–that’s it. But just because that’s the case doesn’t mean he should get complacent. It’s imperative he comes in hungry with a will to succeed. Coyle led all Wild rookies in scoring last season with eight goals and six assists for 14 points and a plus-3 rating in 37 games while spending most of his time on the right side of Koivu and Parise on the top line. He’d have no issues dropping down as No. 2 pivot. Granlund knows this and will do whatever he can to make that second line succeed.
Perhaps the biggest motivation for him is the fact that the Minnesota Wild–his Minnesota Wild–finally got the young stud they originally wanted on draft day 2010. There was no question Nino Niederreiter was No. 1 on the list at 9th overall in the mind of Chuck Fletcher going into the draft. In fact, he met with Nino a few hours before the draft, confirming the Wild’s interest in the dynamic Portland Winterhawks forward. However, Niederreiter was off the board at No. 5, and Fletcher would pick Granlund instead. Fast-forward three years and Minnesota has three of the 30 players picked in Round One of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft–Granlund, Coyle (28th) and Niederreiter.
Long story short, it’s time Granlund marks his territory a bit, and not in the literal sense. Going into last season, he was unquestionably Minnesota’s top prospect. Now, he’s been surpassed by Brodin at the very least, and Coyle, Zucker, Niederreiter and Dumba are right there behind him. Granlund has spent this summer training with Wild captain Mikko Koivu, which certainly isn’t going to hurt his development by any means. He needs to come into camp ready for anything and let his play speak for itself. Nothing is going to be given to him unearned, and he knows it and wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s time Granlund live up to all the hype, and he’s more than capable of doing it. This is going to be an interesting year for all the young guns, and it could be a career-defining year for Granlund. Is he going to be able to handle the pressure or will he crack under it? Only time will tell.