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.
After all, Wild fans waited three years for him. He was billed as a Calder Trophy contender because he dominated the Finnish Elite League as a teenager, winning Rookie of the Year in the SM-Liiga in 2010, leading HIFK to a championship in 2011, and helping lead Finland to gold at the 2011 world championships with a lacrosse-style goal in the semifinals that was captured on a postage stamp and catapulted Granlund into celebrity status.
“After that, he was so famous. He was that 19-year-old who scored that unbelievable goal,” said Kalle Kossila, a sophomore from Finland who is the second-leading scorer on St. Cloud State. “He can’t really go anywhere in Finland. Paparazzi follows him, everybody recognizes him and loves him, just like [Teemu] Selanne and Koivu.
“Selanne’s a legend, but if you ask any young child in Finland who’s their favorite player, most of them are going to say Granlund.”
When Granlund struggled in his first season with the Wild, he took it to heart.
“The one thing with Granny, he’s such a proud guy and he’s highly intelligent,” Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr said. “This was probably the first time ever he didn’t have immediate success at something.”
Selanne, the future Hall of Famer, watched Granlund spend hours daily on the ice and in the weight room as he was determined to prove to everybody he could function in the NHL.
Kossila also took part in some of those skates. He said that after every practice Granlund and his younger brother, Markus, a Calgary Flames prospect who leads AHL rookies in goals this season for Abbotsford, would spend extra time on the ice “working on battle drills, cross-checking each other, learning to protect the puck.”
“Watching him this year,” Kossila said, “I think it’s really helped him.”
Parise says this transition isn’t unusual.
“Just like every smaller player — I’ve been through it, we all go through it — he had to [make] an adjustment to the league, and learn what he can do with the puck, and what he can’t do and [learn] how quick you’ve got to get rid of it.”
On and off the ice, Granlund is getting more comfortable. He mostly hangs out with the Wild’s horde of similar-aged youngsters (most live in the same apartment complex) and gets in on the pregame soccer hackysack contests. In Calgary on Saturday, he was throwing himself into auxiliary seats to keep balls alive.
“He’s a pretty competitive kid,” Cooke said. “Sometimes he’s so gifted at slowing the game down and opening up ice, you almost underestimate his compete and his battle level and mistake it for not being determined.
“But you watch the way he’s playing in our own end this year, he’s knocking guys off pucks, he’s eliminating guys from plays.”
Formula for success
Parise says Pominville has constantly raved about how much he loves playing with Granlund.
“I didn’t really understand it until I finally played with him [recently],” Parise said. “He jumps into holes and plays with a lot of speed in the neutral zone, which is nice for a winger. When your centerman is driving with speed through the middle, it opens a lot of things up. He makes really good plays with the puck. He’s developing really well.”
And he’s become an inspiration for young hockey players like Kossila, who is of similar stature to Granlund.
“I try to watch his every game, and every time he’s on the ice I try to follow what he does,” Kossila said. “He’s been so productive this year. He’s not the fastest player either, but he knows where to go with the puck and he’s really smart with it. I try to learn what he does.”