Mikael Granlund is so discreet you often don’t notice he’s there.
Usually one of the last players off the ice after practice, the Wild playmaker tiptoes into the locker room, sinks into his stall and shakes the sweat out of his blond flow.
“It’s his surfer look,” teammate and Finnish countryman Erik Haula jokes.
To Granlund’s right sits Zach Parise, usually with a half-dozen reporters orbiting him. To Granlund’s left sits Matt Cooke, also popular with the press because he’s a quote machine.
Granlund eyeballs everything, listens to every word, and never gripes that so many are hovering in his personal space.
“He’s learning and taking everything in,” said goalie Niklas Backstrom, who knows Granlund better than most. Backstrom is 14 years older than the soon-to-be-22-year-old, but he is part owner of the former Finnish Elite League team, HIFK, for which Granlund starred.
“He was overpaid then, too,” Backstrom cracks. “Honestly, like every player coming from a different country, everything is new for him. So on the ice, off the ice, he’s constantly learning.”
That’s been apparent by his play this season, especially the past month. Granlund has stepped up in place of injured captain Mikko Koivu and, centering a line with Parise and Jason Pominville, has taken his game to a different level. The Wild is 9-4-2 in the new year, and Granlund has 13 points in those 15 games.
The fifth-leading scorer on the Wild despite missing 13 games because of a concussion, Granlund is riding a five-game point streak heading into Tuesday’s game against Tampa Bay.
And he is nine days from competing in his first Winter Olympics.
Granlund wins important draws regularly, and is trusted by coach Mike Yeo in every situation. This maturation is quite the contrast to the raw rookie who had a tough integration to the NHL last season.
“It was all about my skating and my battle level,” said Granlund, listed at 5-10 and 186 pounds. “When I’m skating good, that helps my game a lot. But I learned last year what I needed to do to survive. I had a lot of work to do.”
“I’ve always been the smallest player on my teams, so it’s normal for me. I understand that I won’t ever be the most powerful guy, so I need to be smarter and do something else.”
Force-fed onto the team as the second-line center last season, Granlund looked overmatched as he tepidly navigated the tight spaces of an NHL-sized rink. He was outmuscled and had trouble staying on his feet.
“No disrespect to him, but we saw flashes of it last year, but other times you saw how tough a transition it was,” Parise said. “These are the best players in the world. It’s not easy.”
Because Granlund came to the Wild with such hype, many wrote him off as a “not big enough, not fast enough, not dynamic enough” bust after the Wild assigned him to the minors.