Three years ago, when Mikael Granlund was a wide-eyed, baby-faced rookie, it was fascinating to watch his relationship with Wild captain Mikko Koivu.
The Finns got to know each other when they won gold at the 2011 world championships (remember Granlund’s lacrosse-style goal that would ultimately be captured on a postage stamp?). But Koivu is almost nine years older than Granlund, so Granlund looked up to Koivu as a mentor.
Koivu took advantage, too, sometimes making his young protégé carry his sticks off the ice or fetch him a sports drink.
Four years later, now that Granlund’s, well, still a baby-faced but more experienced 23-year-old, his relationship with Koivu has evolved into a close friendship.
Sometimes, Koivu, 32, even carries Granlund’s sticks.
“I don’t remember that,” Koivu deadpanned. “When he came into the league, I’m sure it helped because I know where he came from and have the same background. It can be a challenge for a young [European], but he handled it great because he got involved with the younger guys instead of keeping to himself.
“But now, even for me, it’s fun to create that friendship that I think is more than being teammates. He helps keep me young, and my family really likes his family. They are very good people.”
Talk to Granlund, and it’s still abundantly clear how much he respects Koivu. Everything about Minnesota was new, and behind the scenes, it was Koivu he went to for guidance. On the ice, it was the same thing, which is another reason why coach Mike Yeo so respects Koivu.
Koivu has never held it against Granlund that the talented playmaker has slowly bitten off some of Koivu’s opportunity, like centering Zach Parise and Jason Pominville.
“He’s just a great guy,” Granlund said of Koivu. “He has taught me so much about hockey and life and I learn from him every day, just the way he is on and off the ice, how he respects people and treats people. He’s been a big help for me. I think it would have been a lot of tougher without him here.”
One person who has witnessed the Granlund-Koivu friendship grow is veteran goalie Niklas Backstrom, another Finnish countryman.
“You guys don’t see it, but the way they train together or talk about the game is impressive,” Backstrom said. “During the season, they’re workout partners in the back. They’re helping each other before the game on faceoffs. It’s fun to see.
“On a good team, sure, you compete about your ice time — but it’s about making sure the player next to you is playing his best. These two guys push each other but respect each other. That’s how our team works. You try helping the guy sitting next to you even if it may be affecting your ice time.”
Backstrom, who owns a piece of Granlund’s old Liiga team, HIFK, says it’s cool to see how much Granlund has matured.
“He’s maybe a little shy before you get to know him, but now, he’s not afraid to voice his opinion. If you say something’s black, he’s probably going to say it’s white just to make you mad,” Backstrom said, laughing. “He loves arguments.”
Granlund, selected ninth overall in 2010, came to Minnesota with much hype. He was a Finnish Elite League star, one that had paparazzi follow him around Helsinki. Four years later, the Wild is still waiting for Granlund, who signed a two-year, $6 million contract this offseason, to break out.
There have been glimpses of greatness, such as his diving, overtime-winning goal against Colorado in the 2014 playoffs. But he has averaged eight goals, 40 points and 101 shots the past two seasons. He has scored 18 goals and 88 points in 158 career games.
The Wild needs more from Granlund.
“I want to take the next step to be a better player,” Granlund said.
Granlund’s skill is undeniable. But there’s no doubt he must shoot more, be more consistent and stay healthy. The undersized center has missed 33 games the past two seasons with concussion issues and a broken wrist.
“Everyone wants to stay healthy, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it,” Parise said. “But I think a big thing for him will be that No. 1 power-play unit. He’s going to get more touches, he’s going to get more assists, and it’s amazing what that does to the rest of your game. He’s going to get the puck more, and just for his psyche, that’ll be really important.
“It’s mine and Jason’s job to keep helping him develop. I like playing with him. We know how good he is and how good he can be.”
Yeo said he believes Granlund has had more purpose when it comes to shooting this training camp. He scored two goals on six shots and had two assists in three exhibition games.
“In the past, I would say for a young kid, he probably tried to defer a lot of times to Pommer and Zach,” Yeo said. “I think he is in a position now where he feels confident in his game where he can make the plays that he needs to make, not what he thinks they may want him to make.
“That line faces some tough matchups, and he’s got to find a way to score and create despite that.”
Backstrom says it will come.
“The length he goes to in preparing himself is unbelievable,” Backstrom said. “He wants to be great. Back in Finland, his training, his treatments, his nutrition, he really turns every stone to be a better hockey player.”
Wild winger Brett Bulmer and defenseman Tyson Strachan cleared waivers and were assigned to AHL Iowa.