Finnish star starts a new Wild era

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 24, 2012 - 8:16 AM

The much-anticipated signing of elite forward Mikael Granlund represents the beginning of a youthful transformation -- and fresh hope.

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Mikael Granlund (right) is only 20, but has shown he can thrive on a world stage. It’s one reason he was the ninth pick in the 2010 draft.

Photo: Martti Kainulainen, Associated Press

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Wild fans can exhale.

Since Mikael Granlund said last summer he planned to remain in Finland another year to complete his military and scholastic obligations, fans worried the Wild would lose rights to the prized prospect by this year's June 1 deadline.

Worry no more. The Finnish star signed a three-year, $2.7 million contract Wednesday.

Six other top Wild prospects are set to turn pro, including blue- chippers Charlie Coyle and Jonas Brodin, but Granlund long has been the poster child for the team's slew of young talent.

Maybe it's because the ninth overall pick in the 2010 draft provides off-the-charts highlights. Or maybe it's because he's so famous in his native country, his agent says it's like "Lennon and McCartney" when he walks the streets.

"Mikael is a world-class player," General Manager Chuck Fletcher said of the 20-year-old forward's elite playmaking skills, vision and smarts. "He's ready to play in the NHL, and our expectation is he'll play for our club next year and contribute."

Some believe Granlund, who will wear No. 64, could be a Calder Trophy contender for NHL rookie of the year if he plays on the top line with captain and mentor Mikko Koivu -- and if the Wild lands a top player or two this offseason in free agency.

Granlund, 5-10 and 180 pounds, has thrived in Finland's elite league for three seasons, but must adjust to the NHL style of play.

"The NHL is the best league in the world," said Granlund, whose first name is pronounced mee-KYLE. "I don't really have any expectations. ... I'm never going to be the biggest or the fastest guy. I try to work hard and learn from the older guys. I'll just try to do all I can for the Wild."

Granlund was 2010 Rookie of the Year in the Finnish Elite League, led IFK-Helsinki to a championship last year by tying for the league scoring lead, then helped lead Finland to gold at the 2011 world championships. His lacrosse-style goal in the semifinals is captured on a postage stamp and catapulted Granlund into celebrity status. Paparazzi trail him, and he landed on the front of tabloids for an rumored relationship with a former Miss Finland.

He's so popular that writer Samuel Savolainen of Urheilulehti, Finland's top weekly sports magazine, is moving to Minnesota next season to cover Granlund and fellow Finns Koivu and Niklas Backstrom.

Agent Todd Diamond said Granlund leaving Finland for Minnesota could relieve some pressure.

"He's the most Googled athlete in the country the past couple years," Diamond said.

Granlund led HIFK in regular-season scoring this past season but missed the final four weeks with what he called "a bad flu." After returning, he struggled in his club's playoff loss to Jokerit and the most recent world championships.

Naysayers, including TSN and NHL Network analyst Mike Johnson, don't question Granlund's size as much as his foot speed.

"He looked a step slow, and it's going to be hard for him to get the separation he needs to make plays," Johnson said. "He's going to have to get a little faster if he's going to want to be a dominant offensive player."

Grant Sonier, a scout who has worked for six NHL teams and is a special contributor for ESPN.com, is "not as concerned about his feet as other people have been. He doesn't have blinding speed, but he has enough quickness and evasiveness, he's going to be able to buy himself some time and space to make plays. ... I would bet he's going to be a real good player."

Coyle has been a prolific scorer the Quebec League this year, and his stock has skyrocketed while Granlund's has fallen.

"They're different types of players, and if you put Mikael Granlund on the Saint John Sea Dogs, he would absolutely dominate. Like, it wouldn't even be funny," Sonier said. "You can't elevate one guy based on his performance in junior and downgrade the other kid who's playing in the [Finnish] Elite League."

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