Mikael Granlund, Wild prospect

For the first time since Marian Gaborik in 2000 and Mikko Koivu in 2001, the Wild may have finally drafted a blue-chip forward — one on the cusp of NHL stardom.

Presuming there’s no hang-up in signing Mikael Granlund before June 1, the Finnish superstar is a lock to make 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.

As a 19-year-old, he’s currently second in the league in scoring.

To put that production in perspective, Koivu combined for eight points in the same league as a 17- and 18-year-old.

Granlund’s a Finnish rock star.

He appears on murals all over Helsinki and became the toast of Finland last spring 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.

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.


Michal Kamaryt, Associated Press

MarQueis Gray, Gophers quarterback

By some measures, MarQueis Gray’s first season as Gophers quarterback was a big success. He survived intact, for one thing, and he rushed for more yards than any Minnesota player has in the past five years. He was chosen the Gophers’ Most Valuable Player after a 3-9 season, and even became the father of twin boys.

The challenge now for the 21-year-old senior? Get a whole lot better.

While Jerry Kill concentrates on riveting together the superstructure of what he hopes is a contender come 2014 or ‘15, Gray must inhabit the 2012 scaffolding and pretend it’s a castle. And if the QB-turned-receiver-turned-QB was the heart of the 2011 team, come next fall, he’ll need to be the lungs, brain and spleen, too.

Gray’s top two receiving targets have graduated, as have two of his linemen and the Gophers’ top tailback. If Kill is to demonstrate any progress in Year 2, it will be up to his quarterback to demonstrate he’s developed the ability to carry an offense and reliably pass the ball downfield, skills that still largely eluded him as a junior.

All that and parenting, too.


Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press

Maya Moore, Lynx star

Lynx forward Maya Moore made a splash her first WNBA season — even off the court. She received the fourth most votes in fan balloting for the all-star game and was the first rookie starter since 2002. Her jersey was the league’s best seller. She was named the league’s rookie of the year.

Wait until she figures out the women’s pro game. Moore was inconsistent for the WNBA champions. There were games the No. 1 overall pick from Connecticut could not miss; she scored 20 points or more six times. But Moore finished in single digits 12 times.

The player with hands quicker than a rattlesnake’s bite — according to an ESPN science video — said recently she wants to improve her defense.

Count on that and on her averaging more than 13.2 points she did last season. She is athletic, relentless and is pursuing two goals this year: a second WNBA title for the Lynx and a gold medal in the Summer Olympics for the U.S. team she is expected to make.


Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press

Morneau and Mauer, Twins stars

The last time the Twins received a full season of good health from both Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau was 2008. That was the year after the franchise parted ways with Johan Santana and Torii Hunter. Fans weren’t expecting much, but the Twins narrowly missed the postseason, losing a one-game tiebreaker to the White Sox.

Since then, Morneau has had three seasons derailed by injuries, the last two because of concussions. A host of maladies limited Mauer to 82 games last season, when the M & M Boys combined to bat .259 with seven homers and 60 RBI.

It’s been another blasé offseason for the Twins, but fans could change their outlook considerably if they knew they could expect six solid months of production from Mauer and Morneau.

If not, few should be surprised if this team loses 90 games again.


Jim Gehrz, Dml - Star Tribune

Eric Kaler, U of M president

He holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, which is close. But alchemy would come in much handier for Eric Kaler as he prepares to shape the future of University of Minnesota athletics.

The U’s new president, on the job for six months now, governs a campus without a usable baseball stadium, without a basketball practice facility and without a competitive football program. Gophers athletics have searched fruitlessly for sufficient big-dollar donors to fund capital improvements and are bracing for declining attendance next season at TCF Bank Stadium.

Into this dilemma steps the 55-year-old Kaler, who with a pending decision — extending Joel Maturi’s contract or naming his successor — will begin to address the state of a 25-sport, $80 million program. Whether it’s Maturi, who celebrates a decade on the job in July, or Kaler’s handpicked administrator, Minnesota’s athletic director will face no shortage of challenges.

Kaler was provost at Stony Brook when that small university grew its athletic budget from $9 million to $20 million annually, so he understands the importance of growing revenues. Hey, maybe he does know alchemy.


Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Rachel Bootsma, Olympic swimming hopeful

Making the U.S. Olympic team requires good timing as well as talent. Rachel Bootsma is getting swifter at just the right moment, putting the Eden Prairie swimmer on schedule to contend for a berth at this summer’s London Games.

Bootsma, 17, has been called one of the best backstroke sprinters in the world by Swimming World magazine. It also named her female high school co-swimmer of the year after she broke the national prep record in the 100-yard backstroke (51.53 seconds). Last October, Bootsma stepped up to major international competition at the Pan American Games in Mexico and won two gold medals, setting a Pan Am Games record in the 100-meter back (1 minute, 0.37 seconds) and helping set another in the 4x100 medley relay (4:01.00).

The Eden Prairie senior also placed second in the 100 back at the 2011 national championships behind Missy Franklin, who is projected to be a very big fish in the Olympic pool. Her task now is to swim her fastest at the Olympic trials in June, where Bootsma is likely to face Franklin and two-time Olympic gold medalist Natalie Coughlin in the 100 back — with the top two going to the Olympics.


Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Zygi Wilf, Vikings owner

The Vikings’ lease at the Metrodome expires soon. And they will not re-sign to play at Mall of America Field on a temporary basis without a deal in place for a new stadium. Zygi Wilf, the team’s co-owner with brother Mark (Zygi is the chairman, Mark the president), continues to pledge his commitment to keep the team in Minnesota. But where? Arden Hills? Downtown Minneapolis?

A big part of Wilf’s legacy will be determined by what kind of a stadium deal he is able to engineer. If and when things fall into place this year, a new stadium would not only be likely to upgrade the Vikings’ game-day experience but would capable of providing the Twin Cities with a state-of-the-art multi-use venue that Wilf believes could have a positive economic impact on the region.

This is about building for the future — something newly promoted general manager Rick Spielman will do with the roster and something Wilf will do in acquiring a new place to play.


Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves point guard

The Timberwolves and their fans waited two years to see if Ricky Rubio really was real. In one short month, he has proven himself to be all that, and then some by doing what until recently seemed impossible: He has with that floppy hair and no-look flair given Wolves fans something to be excited about.

He’s also gotten his once-forgotten new team on ESPN’s SportsCenter highlights nearly every night he has played. A European pro since he was 14 and Olympic starter at 17, Rubio now, at age 21, has Target Center patrons chanting for him to enter the game at nearly every turn.

He also has inspired one young fan with a similar head full of hair to arrive at a game wearing a No. 9 jersey and sporting the same sort of facial hair (thanks to his mother’s mascara) years before he’s actually able to shave. Rubio has done so with a court presence and grasp of the game — not to mention a natural charisma — that belies his young years.

“The kid has something,” Miami star Dwyane Wade said of Rubio. “He’s going to be great for them.”


Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Adrian Peterson, Vikings running back

The image was gruesome, a real Christmas Eve downer.

In a dismal Vikings’ season that included 13 losses in 16 games, arguably the biggest blow the team absorbed was the hit star running back Adrian Peterson took during last month’s win in Washington, his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments tearing on a routine play in a meaningless game.

Peterson, who will be 27 next month, signed a seven-year, $100 million contract in September. That was a risk for the Vikings, since running backs get old in a hurry. But following major surgery, Peterson is already attacking the rehabilitation process, driven to meet the team’s best-case scenario for a return. The lofty goal: Peterson back on the field for the season opener in September, eight months after a surgery that typically requires more time for complete recovery.

For a team vowing to regroup quickly after one of its worst seasons ever, dreams like this will have to come true. And for Peterson, whose future is in question even if his drive and commitment aren’t, a rapid recovery could prove to be a considerable catalyst.


Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Rachel Banham, Gophers point guard

It’s a tall order, particularly for a freshman who stands only 5-foot-9. But Rachel Banham hasn’t felt burdened by the expectation that she will lead the Gophers back to women’s basketball prosperity. Quite the contrary, in fact.

The Lakeville North prodigy stepped into a program desperate to regain the stature it enjoyed in the 2000s, when players such as Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville carried the Gophers to a string of 20-win seasons and the 2004 Final Four. Banham instantly gave the Gophers the playmaking point guard they needed, along with a take-charge attitude that has fans talking. In her first two months of college ball, she already has won a game with a last-second shot, been named Big Ten freshman of the week twice and leads her team in scoring.

Banham displays unusual poise and confidence for a rookie. She never considered playing anywhere other than at the U, and she brims with enthusiasm when she discusses the Gophers’ potential. Her play through the rest of the season will have much to say, too, about the direction the program is headed.


Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

Peter Sorensen, Invasive species fighter

A fish nut even as a kid, U of M professor Peter Sorensen earned his doctorate in biological oceanography for his discovery that compounds derived from stream microbes direct the migration of larval eels.

Sorensen has since turned much of his formidable intellect to the understanding of a fish Minnesotans detest — the common carp — with the hope that someday its plague upon the state might be ended.

In his quest, one question (among many) befuddles Sorensen: What role do pheromones and other odors play in the lives of carp? Or, put in fancy professor-speak: "Olfactory coding of pheromone identity is of special interest to us and we approach it by recording from the fish nervous system at both the peripheral and central levels using single- and multi-unit approaches."

Sorensen’s research this year could make a difference for Minnesota. Perhaps in him even Asian carp have met their match. “Every animal has a weakness,’’ he said.


Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Kent Patterson, Gophers goalie

A MacNaughton Cup, a Broadmoor Trophy and an NCAA tournament spot all appear within the grasp of the Gophers men’s hockey team in 2012 after several mediocre seasons. The key? For goalie Kent Patterson to keep playing as well as he has.

Patterson has started every game. Coach Don Lucia trusts the steady, unflappable senior. Patterson plays angles like Minnesota Fats on a pool table and gobbles up pucks like Kobayashi devours hot dogs.

He was named the national player of the month for October. The senior from Plymouth has a 2.04 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage. Patterson’s 15 wins entering the weekend were the most in Division I hockey. His six shutouts are a single-season team record. Even his goalie mask is hot, placing second in a national contest.

Patterson prefers facing a lot of shots. He was at his busiest and best in a mid-October series at Minnesota Duluth, stopping 46 shots each night. The Gophers swept the defending NCAA champion, twice winning 5-4. But his biggest tests are yet to come.


Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

Difference makers in Minnesota sports: 12 for 2012

  • Star Tribune staff
  • January 8, 2012 - 8:54 AM

Having endured a hugely forgettable sports year — the Lynx and NSC Minnesota Stars soccer team notwithstanding — Minnesota fans begin the New Year with a sense of hope. Ricky Rubio looks as good as the hype that preceded his arrival, the Wild look like a playoff team and things have to improve for the Gophers, who didn’t get a revenue program — football plus men’s basketball and hockey — into a postseason in 2011.

The Vikings might soon get the go-ahead for a new stadium, and the Twins have the annual optimism of spring training going for them.

Almost forgot: The Lynx figure to be even better.

The Star Tribune has highlighted  a dozen (OK, we’re counting the Twins’ M&M boys as a single entry) people who will have to make a positive impact over the next 12 months for the present day hope to evolve into success. Click through the photo gallery below to read about them and what they could bring to Minnesota sports fans.



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