Sharing the Wild spotlight takes pressure off Granlund

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 14, 2012 - 10:18 PM

The Parise-Suter buzz might enable Mikael Granlund to slip in quietly and adjust to NHL life.

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Mikael Granlund, practicing last week during the Wild development camp at St. Thomas Ice Arena in Mendota Heights, has played wing, but he is a natural center.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the Wild signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter was Mikael Granlund. Now, instead of all the focus in training camp being on the arrival of the Finnish star, the buzz surrounding Parise and Suter will allow Granlund to ease quietly onto the scene.

Of course, if anybody can handle being under the microscope, it's Granlund -- the Wild's much-hyped 2010 first-round pick. Granlund's mug is on murals all over Helsinki. He is followed by paparazzi. His relationships are the subject of tabloid fodder. He's so popular, a Finnish magazine is sending a columnist to live in the Twin Cities.

It's no wonder Granlund, here for the Wild prospect camp, said Thursday, "I don't feel any pressure."

As agent Todd Diamond said after the Wild signed Granlund to a three-year contract in May, it's like "Lennon and McCartney" when Granlund walks down the streets in his native country.

"He's used to lots of media attention where he's from," said Brent Flahr, Wild assistant general manager. "I think coming here in general will be a break from a lot of it, to be honest with you. But the focus on [Parise and Suter] just gives him time to adjust, like any young player, to the NHL."

Coach Mike Yeo's initial plan is to give Granlund, 20, a look at second-line center when training camp begins in September.

Granlund has played wing, but he is a natural center. He plays center for Finland in international competitions and has played center for IFK-Helsinki. So Yeo wants Granlund to feel as comfortable as possible and to be in a position to succeed in the fall.

Granlund likes to play with the puck, and at center he will get to feel it often with the possible options of Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Matt Cullen being on his wings.

"It's an easy adjustment to move him back to wing if it doesn't work out," Yeo said. "But you put him at center on this team now, he should be well surrounded with speed and skill beside him. That's enticing when you have a guy like that coming through the middle of the ice with his ability to distribute the puck to either side. I think it could be a fit."

Wild fans have waited for Granlund's arrival ever since the team selected him ninth overall three drafts ago. But Granlund delayed signing a contract because he wanted to fulfill his military requirements, finish school and mature as a player.

"I just want to help the team," Granlund said. "I had a dream when I was young to play in the NHL, and now it's coming true."

Granlund was 2010 Rookie of the Year in the Finnish Elite League, led HIFK to a championship in 2011 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.

Last season, he led HIFK in scoring, but he was sidelined by a "bad flu" the final month, lost weight, then had one practice before a disappointing showing in the world championships. But watching Granlund so far in development camp, it's clear he's back to normal.

"He looks really good," Yeo said. "You can just tell the way he thinks the game and his skill level. His ability to make plays is extremely high."

Granlund is listed at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, and some critics have latched on to that lack of size and wondered how effective he will be in the NHL. But he has played against men for three years in Finland, and on Thursday morning in battle drills Granlund held his own and scored goals from in tight. He also laughed off heavy-hitting 2012 first-round pick Matt Dumba's attempt to step into him across the blue line on one rush.

In Thursday night's scrimmage, Granlund showed puck sense and passing ability, especially in setting up a goal by fellow prospect Jason Zucker.

The Wild believes Granlund can make an impact immediately in the NHL, and he could give the team its first legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate since Marian Gaborik in 2000-01.

"He's a talented kid, so why not?" Flahr said. "It's been two years since his draft, he's gotten stronger and he's a talented, talented guy. We're going to have a little bit more depth, so it takes the pressure off his role and what he has to do right away.

"We're hoping he can start right, feel good and fit right in right away."

Yeo doesn't want to put too many expectations on Granlund, but he said: "We're hoping we have the kind of season where there's a number of really good stories next year. If we're going to have a great season next year, then we need more than one player to step up for us and do something special."

GRANLUND HIGHLIGHTS

• 2009-10 rookie of the year in Finnish Elite League

• 2010-11 league championship

• 2011-12 scoring title: 20 goals, 31 assists in 45 games

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