There was a lot of hype surrounding top prospect Mikael Granlund when the Minnesota Wild thought so highly of him it decided to take him with its top pick at 9th overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. After two seasons of play in the Finnish SM-Liiga, the 5’10″ 186-pound center eventually made his way across the pond to North America, scoring at nearly a point-per-game pace with the AHL’s Houston Aeros, the top minor league affiliate of the Minnesota Wild at the time. That was, of course, prior to the end of the bitter lockout that ate up roughly half of the 2012-13 season.
When the lockout was over, Granlund was recalled by the Wild for his NHL debut, and many had thought he had seen the last of the AHL. Minnesota won their opening night game, and Granlund had his first career NHL goal. Unfortunately, there wouldn’t be much production from him beyond that and he would eventually spend more time back in Houston, scoring 10 goals and 18 assists for 28 points and a negative-1 rating in 29 games with the Aeros. In 27 games with the Wild last season, the Finn would score two goals and six assists for just eight points and a negative-4 rating. What’s more, the title of Minnesota Top Prospect no longer rested on his head, but on defenseman Jonas Brodin, whose efforts on the top pairing with Norris finalist Ryan Suter had earned him a selection to the NHL’s 2013 All-Rookie Team.
Even with his success in the SM-Liiga and AHL, there were major concerns that the superbly talented center might not be able to translate that success when it came to the highest level of the game. This year, Granlund has proved all his doubters wrong. Without Matt Cullen to back him up, and the fact that fellow sophomore forward Charlie Coyle was injured for much of the early part of the season, Granlund was forced to assume the role of second line center. He’s taken it with a firm grip, consistently winning faceoffs, playing a reliable two-way game and developing a special bond with 2013 trade deadline blockbuster acquisition Jason Pominville. In 41 games, Granlund has three goals and 19 assists for 22 points and a negative-2 rating with more than a few of those assists coming on Pominville tallies.
There’s no question his playmaking skills are among the league’s elite. What has been interesting to see develop, however, are his skills as a dangler. At 5’10″, Granlund isn’t the biggest player. He can’t bull his way through the offensive zone like Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter can. Nor is he the best skater–or, at least, that’s been the biggest knock on him since he was drafted. Instead, Granlund has had to rely on his exceptional hockey sense to succeed. He seems to anticipate where the puck will be or what others will do around him, and that’s what has given him the ability to deke his way in and around the offensive zone, behind the net and to a spot that will allow him to make one of his trademark unearthly passes to a Pominville or a Niederreiter for the goal.
The next and final step for Granlund is to turn those opportunities into scoring chances for himself. We saw a glimpse of it last night as he attempted to dipsy-doodle his way through the Sharks defense towards the net. It was unsuccessful, but it left me with a big smile on my face as I saw it as a glimpse into just what kind of a player Granlund could develop into when he reaches his prime within the next five years. I’ll give you a hint, he’s got the potential to be scary-good. If he just keeps doing what he’s doing, this kid is going to have a very long and successful career in the NHL.