Finally, after more than a year of concern by many, Mikael Granlund, the No. 2-ranked prospect in February's Hockey News Future Watch, is officially locked up.
The talented playmaking forward signed a three-year, $2.7 million deal. That includes annual $90,000 signing bonuses. He also received a potential performance bonus structure that raises his annual salary-cap hit to $2.1 million. The deal's been done for awhile and essentially the transfer paperwork needed to be finalized, then registered with the NHL.
I'd certainly suspect that you can pencil the Finnish Elite League star onto next year’s Wild roster.
As a 17-year-old in a league made up of men, Granlund scored 40 points in 43 games for IFK-Helsinki and was named the Finnish Elite League’s Rookie of the Year. As an 18-year-old, Granlund led IFK to a championship by tying for the league’s scoring lead. To put Granlund’s production in perspective, Wild captain Mikko Koivu combined for eight points in the same league as a 17- and 18-year-old.
As a 19-year-old this past season, he led the HIFK in regular-season scoring.
Granlund’s a Finnish rock star.
He appears on murals all over Helsinki, he's followed by paparazzi and became the toast of Finland last May by helping the proud country to a world championship in part because of a highlight-reel, lacrosse goal in the semifinals that’s been captured on a postage stamp.
“My mom has a lot of them,” Granlund said, laughing, last June. “For me, it’s not so big deal. It was just one goal. And that’s it,” Granlund added. “I tell people, ‘Come on, we won a gold medal. That’s what’s important.”
The ninth overall pick in 2010, Granlund can fly up ice, handles the puck beautifully and almost nonchalantly creates offense. He’s as good a distributor and a shooter and could give the Wild a bona fide Rookie of the Year candidate next season along with maybe even Charlie Coyle and certainly the Rangers' Chris Kreider.
The naysayers say he's too small, his footwork needs to be better. "I'll never be the biggest, fastest player. I've got to be the smartest," Granlund said last year.
Granlund has grown close with Koivu during the last two world championships and a stint in the Finnish Army. That’s got to music to the ears of the Wild brass, which envisions Koivu and Granlund as cornerstone fixtures of the Wild’s foundation.
“He’s a great guy,” Granlund said of Koivu last summer. “I need to learn from him. He’s a great player and great leader, so there’s much to learn from him.”
Granlund delayed signing with the Wild because he wanted to fulfill his six-month military obligation, finish school and “practice hard so I will be more ready when I come here.”
But he always promised Wild fans, “I want to play in Minnesota. That’s for sure."
Granlund was second in scoring at the most recent world junior championships. But in the semifinals in a must-score situation to extend a shootout against rival and eventual gold medal-winning Sweden, the puck slid off Granlund's stick.
During the precise time of Granlund’s shootout snafu, the Wild touched down in Vancouver. Later that day, Koivu watched the highlights.
He saw Granlund’s dejected face. He saw Granlund’s tears as he stood with his head slumped over the bench. So Koivu called Granlund to lift his spirits.
“At the end, it’s one shootout attempt,” said Koivu. “It’s not going to make him any worse or any better as a player.
“Everybody who knows the game, everybody who looks at the game, they know what kind of player he is. One shot won’t ruin that. He’s got to know that. It was a tough spot to be in, and a big deal for him. But it won’t make him any worse. He’s going to do just fine when he gets to [Minnesota].”
If you know Koivu, he’s not exactly the touchy, feely type. So for Koivu to show this kind of compassion was big.
“He said, ‘It’s just hockey,’” Granlund said. “He tried to cheer me up. It means a lot that he called me. He’s a great player, and a good friend.”
In last year's world championships, besides "The Goal," his nine points in nine games were second on Finland. This year, he played on the second line, but the coaches used Koivu's line, an energy line and a checking line more. He was benched during long stretches and did seem to struggle at times. He also, after missing the end of the regular season with an illness, reportedly struggled during IFK's playoff-round loss to Jokerit.
Is this a cause for concern? I asked reporter Samuel Savolainen of the sports magazine, "Urheilulehti," and he said, "The thing that was talked about for instand in our magazine was that he was simply burned out. After his sensational performance in the World Championships last year, he had to endure media exposure like never seen before. He had to tour with the trophy around the country and did everything. Interviews, commercials, PR-events, you name it. You can also throw in his brief stint in the military.
"He became such an instant hero and celebrity that (I'm not kidding) there were news in the tabloids about him having pizza and him going out to have a beer. He is incredibly polite, so he had a tough time to say "no". And I think all that put together just took such a huge toll on him. And it showed in a transparent way in the playoffs in the Finnish league and the World Championships."
We'll see. Regardless, this should be a very exciting development camp (July 8-15) and training camp (if training camp starts on time due to the league and union needing to modify the collective bargaining agreement) to see Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Johan Larsson, Brett Bulmer, Jason Zucker and Zack Phillips compete for roster spots.
I'll be updating this later. Content from this blog came from numerous articles I've written on Granlund.
Here is the feature I wrote on Granlund when I got to watch him play in Helsinki two Octobers ago:
By MICHAEL RUSSO
HELSINKI – Wearing a backwards powdered blue Yankees cap, Tuomas Eloholma shows off his red No. 64 “GRANLUND” sweater with the “I.F.K. est. 1897” blue crest on the front.
“I like him very much. He’s a very good player. He’s a very clever player,” Eloholma said of Mikael Granlund, the uber-skilled forward whom the Wild chose with the ninth overall pick in this past June’s NHL entry draft.
“He seems a lot older than he is. He’s just 18. If you don’t know his age, you can think he’s like 30 or he’s played a very long time. But he’s very young. He will be maybe the most talented Finnish player of all-time when he gets older.”
Now, in full disclosure, Eloholma is only 16 years old. He wasn’t born when Hall of Famer Jari Kurri strung 100-point seasons together for the Edmonton Oilers. Teemu Selanne’s 76-goal rookie year with the Winnipeg Jets and Saku Koivu’s dominance of the Finnish Elite League were also before his time.
So Eloholma’s sense of what could be the “most talented Finnish player of all-time” may be a tad warped.
But the kid who’s watched almost every Granlund game the past two years knows there’s something special about his favorite player.
“He’s the No. 1 center on IFK. He’s just 18. It’s very strange,” said Eloholma.
Granlund may have pimples. He looks years away from needing a razor. But there’s a reason Granlund’s face or action shot is on every IFK mural or poster in Helsinki. He’s lighting up the Finnish Elite League, a league full of men and one of Europe’s most competitive.
As a 17-year-old last year, Granlund scored 40 points in 43 games and was named the SM-Liiga’s Rookie of the Year. This season, Granlund is tied for fourth in league scoring with 10 points in eight games – but one point behind league leaders, teammate Ville Peltonen and Lukko’s Perttu Lindgren.
To put Granlund’s production in perspective, let’s take Wild captain Mikko Koivu. He played four years for TPS-Turku. He topped out at 30 points during his fourth season at age 21. At 17, Koivu had no goals and one assist in 21 games. At 18, Koivu scored seven points in 48 games.
“[Granlund’s] doing some pretty special things at an early age,” said Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, who along with owner Craig Leipold, the rest of the front office and entire coaching staff watched Granlund score a goal and three assists in Saturday’s 11-3 rout of Assat.
The Wild won’t label him a star in the making and create unreasonable expectations and pressure. But for the first time since Marian Gaborik in 2000 and Koivu in 2001, there’s a chance the franchise has finally drafted another blue-chip forward.
Granlund’s been taken under the wing by his linemate Peltonen, a living Finnish legend who’s played 382 NHL games for San Jose, Nashville and Florida. Granlund was 3 when Peltonen’s hat trick lifted Finland to its lone world championship. At 37, Peltonen is more than half Granlund’s age, and he’s become a father figure.
“I’m afraid to say so much and tell you how good I think he’s going to be,” said Peltonen. “Let him get where he can get. I’ll just say, Minnesota’s very lucky.”
Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom knows Granlund well. He owns a piece of IFK and used to play in Oulu, Granlund’s hometown.
“He’s a guy who just loves hockey,” said Backstrom, smiling with his eyes open wide. “It’s unreal to see how big his passion is for hockey. He’s got all the tools.”
Granlund’s skill was obvious against Assat. He can fly up the ice, handles the puck smoothly and almost casually creates offense. He wants the puck, he wants to hang onto it and he can anticipate what to do with it.
“He dominates from the center just like centers should do,” said Peltonen. “He surprises his linemates every now and then with his quick passing. It’s a lot of fun to play with him. He makes me feel young again.”
Leipold was thrilled to watch him in person, something the owner normally doesn’t get to do.
“He knows we’re here, and you can tell he’s got his wheels completely in motion and having a lot of fun,” Leipold said. “It’s a great environment to watch a game. I mean, this crowd is a wild, rambunctious crowd. It’s fun to watch. And it’s no secret we’re high on this guy. He’s going to be a big part of our future.”
The Wild will look to sign Granlund this year and bring him to North America next season. The team envisions Granlund eventually being Martin Havlat’s center or even a winger alongside Koivu.
“He’s always here with eyes open and ears open. He wants to get better,” said Peltonen. “Minnesota fans will love him.”