Granlund excelling with reins loose

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 9, 2012 - 12:43 AM

Houston coach John Torchetti is known for being rigid, but the Wild prospect's skill set earned him freedom to play instinctively.

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Wild prospect Mikael Granlund

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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John Torchetti followed his mentor, well-traveled NHL executive Rick Dudley, over the past decade.

After Torchetti was named coach of the year in Fort Wayne and managed the Detroit Vipers in the now-defunct International Hockey League, Dudley brought the man known as "Torch" to Tampa Bay, Florida, Chicago and Atlanta.

The reason, Dudley always says, is there are few better tacticians in the NHL coaching ranks.

Funny thing about those stops though: Getting to work with standouts such as Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Stephen Weiss, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane has caused Torchetti to evolve from being a "pure tactician."

"I used to be A, B, C, D, E, F and G: 'You go here, here and here,'" said Torchetti, who begins his second year as coach for Houston, where he has been handed the Wild's cream-of-the-crop prospects. "You learn when you work with so many skilled players that you want your player to think on his own. He's going to have to make a decision during a game where I don't want him going to that area robotic."

Houston has great talent with first-round picks Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin and Zack Phillips, along with upper-echelon second-rounders Brett Bulmer, Jason Zucker and Johan Larsson. Torchetti wants to provide the ability to freelance, as long as it's within the guidelines of the system and as long as players are "working."

"To me, that's still the No. 1 thing," Torchetti said.

The chief example of combining skill and hard work is Granlund. He played professionally for three years in Finland, was named the SM-Liiga Rookie of the Year as a 17-year-old and led HIFK to a championship two years ago while tying for the league scoring lead.

Eighteen months ago, while helping Finland win gold at the world championships, he scored a lacrosse-style goal that has since been captured on a postage stamp and inspired a hit song, "Tavias Varjele" ("Good Heavens").

Granlund, 20, could have starred for the Wild if not for the NHL lockout. Instead, he will make his North American professional debut Saturday against Charlotte in the Aeros' AHL opener.

Granlund had four goals and an assist in a 6-2 exhibition victory at Oklahoma City on Saturday.

"He competes in every drill," Torchetti said. "He does it right. There's a lot to be taken out of a player that wants to be excellent every practice. You do it right in practice, it just makes it like clockwork in a game. That's why if any player deserves the freedom to do what he can do, it's this kid."

Since a subpar 2012 world championships, some critics had questioned Granlund's lack of size (he's 5-10) and skating ability. But there's no denying his skill, vision and smarts, and he has an NHL-caliber wrist shot.

As for Granlund's size, Torchetti brings up Kane, whom he won a Stanley Cup with in Chicago as an assistant.

"I used to tell him, 'My future lies in your hands. Get in the weight room,' and he'd laugh," Torchetti said. "He said, 'I'm used to everyone chasing me, Torchy. Don't worry.'

"The only time I ever worry is if a guy is getting hit consistently, and these guys have made it this far for a reason."

Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr said Granlund's skating is "not an issue."

"He's so smart and deceptive. No one says he'll be a top-end speedster, but he's a good skater, very shifty and elusive on his skates, especially with the puck," Flahr said.

Until the lockout ends, Wild fans won't see him in town, however.

"I'll just try to be ready for the games down there and play good. That's all I can do," Granlund said. "It's going to be a good league this year. It's going to be tough games, which will be good for [the Wild in the long run]."

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