It was the ninth pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, and the player the Minnesota Wild had originally wanted–Nino Niederreiter–was already off the board having been taken fifth overall. That was okay, though; the Wild scouting staff had another card up their sleeves.
With its top selection, Minnesota would select flashy young forward Mikael Granlund, who was lighting up the Finnish SM-Liiga. A dynamic playmaker, Granlund was still rather small at 5’10″ and 176-pounds. Another issue was the fact that all his success was coming on Olympic-sized ice–a style of rink much wider and slower paced than North American ice. With more space, Granlund could use his already outstanding hockey I.Q. to create magic every time he had possession of the puck. Not only was he labeled the smartest player in his draft class, but his playmaking skills were considered second only to No. 2 pick Tyler Seguin.
After two more seasons in the SM-Liiga (he would score 41 goals and 127 points in 129 career games), Granlund finally brought his talents to North America. Unfortunately for Wild fans, though probably fortunate for Granlund, the NHL was deadlocked in a bitter battle between the owners and the NHL Players’ Association. Instead, Minnesota’s top prospect would spend the first half of his first pro season in the States with the Houston Aeros–Minnesota’s top minor league affiliate–where he would score at nearly a point-per-game pace while skating alongside (now) fellow Wild regulars Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Justin Fontaine and Darcy Kuemper.
On January 19th, 2013, Minnesota Wild fans were finally able to see the highly touted savior of the franchise play his first career NHL game. Minnesota would decisively beat the Colorado Avalanche and Granlund had his first goal. It was a remarkable moment, but one of few for Granlund the rest of the season. In 27 games with Minnesota, the Finnish Phenom would score just one more goal and add six assists for a total of eight points and a negative-4 rating. What’s more, other youngsters like Coyle, Brodin and Jason Zucker found themselves surpassing Granlund in many respects. Brodin stole the show in particular, playing top pairing minutes against the best in the West alongside Norris finalist Ryan Suter while being named to the league’s 2013 All-Rookie Team.
While Brodin seemed to be stealing the title of Minnesota’s top prospect right out from under him, Granlund would shuttle back and forth between the Wild and the Aeros before finally finishing the season in Houston. In 29 games with the Aeros, Granlund would score 10 goals and 18 assists for 28 points and a negative-1 rating. There was hope, however. Having excelled at every level of play so far, it was only going to be a matter of time before things clicked for the talented youngster at the NHL level.
It’s extremely difficult to have a sophomore slump following a terrible rookie season, so Granlund had no where else to go this year than up. That said, it’s been a one-way vertical trip for him this year, and it’s showing no signs of turning otherwise. This year’s training camp and preseason seemed to indicate that Coyle was about to break out as a game-changing No. 2 center for the club, leaving Granlund, Zucker and rookie Erik Haula battling for roster spots. However, Haula wasn’t ready, Zucker was battling through an injury and Granlund had no intentions of giving up his spot to either one.
Instead, Granlund has jumped at every opportunity he’s been presented with, starting with the second line center role that opened up after an injury to Coyle two games into the season. Granlund found a special connection with Jason Pominville and neither he nor the team have looked back. While Pominville leads the Wild with 24 goals, a bunch of those have come off of Granlund’s 29 assists, which are tied with Mikko Koivu and Suter for first on the team.
Perhaps Granlund’s biggest opportunity came when Koivu broke his ankle in a 5-3 win over the Washington Capitals on January 4th. Minnesota’s captain wouldn’t return until March 3rd, meaning Granlund was officially the team’s No. 1 center just a season and a half into his NHL career. In 22 games since, Granlund has thrived, scoring three goals and 15 assists for 18 points, a plus-4 rating and 42 shots on goal while skating between Pominville and top line left wing Zach Parise. Granlund took his confidence with him to Sochi, scoring three goals and seven points in six games on a line with Teemu Selanne while leading his country to the bronze medal. His exceptional play would make him the tournament’s third-leading scorer and gave him All-Tournament Team honors.
Since his return, Granlund has scored a goal, seven points and a plus-3 rating in seven games. Unlike Koivu, Granlund has had no trouble finding chemistry with his new line mates. In fact, the trio has combined for 12 goals and 21 assists in 11 games since being placed together.
Even with Koivu back in the lineup, head coach Mike Yeo’s mantra has clearly been, “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”. If that means Koivu’s role as top line center has been usurped, so be it. That said, Granlund still has a long way to go before he’s even in the prime of his career. His position as No. 1 center can easily be claimed by someone else if he falters or someone else rises to the occasion. However, if there’s anything his play this season has shown, it’s that Minnesota clearly has a bright future with a rising superstar headlining an impressive youth movement. It’s safe to say Granlund appears to be the franchise’s highly touted savior once more.