ST. PAUL, Minn. — Zach Parise knew about the talent hidden in Mikael Granlund, but didn’t fully appreciate the ability of the once-heralded phenom from Finland.
Parise saw flashes of Granlund’s immense talent last season in the first season for each with the Minnesota Wild. Granlund, the international star with the sterling Finnish background, was used by the team as a selling point for Parise as a free agent in 2012. Parise even heard from teammate Jason Pominville how fun it was to play with Granlund.
"But I didn’t realize," Parise said last week. "Pominville had told me how much he likes playing with him. Only from watching, I didn’t know. I hadn’t played with him. When I finally did, he jumps into holes and plays with a lot of speed through the neutral zone, which is nice for a forward. As a winger, when your centermen’s driving with speed through the middle, it opens a lot of things up. He makes plays. He makes really good plays with the puck. I think he’s developing really well."
Granlund, 21, is developing how many expected when he was named the No. 2 prospect in the NHL by The Hockey News in 2012, following a difficult rookie season in Minnesota in 2013.
He led the Wild with 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) in January and he’s sixth on the team in scoring this season with 28 points, despite missing 13 games because of a concussion earlier this season. His 23 assists are third on the team.
"I think first of all, now I know what kind of game it is here," Granlund said. "I didn’t know last year how I should play here and that’s one of the things, maybe. But the other thing is during the summer, I worked hard and I did things I wanted to be better. I think that’s the biggest thing."
Since returning from his concussion in December, Granlund has three goals and 13 assists in 22 games, and Parise and Pominville are the current benefactors for Minnesota.
Granlund, set to play for Team Finland in his first Olympics, entered the Olympic break with two goals and six assists in the final seven games, playing on the first line with Parise and Pominville.
"I didn’t appreciate all the little things he does on the ice and the good passes he makes," Parise said. "I think us three, we play with a lot of speed through the neutral zone and the offensive zone. We made plays, it was pretty fun."
His playmaking works well with the Wild’s two leading goal-scorers. Now fully adapted to life in the NHL, his trademark vision and passing are routinely on display.
Coach Mike Yeo called Granlund’s effort against Colorado — one goal, two assists, 22 minutes of ice time, 12 faceoff wins, a plus-2 rating and five shots on goal on Jan. 30 — his best game in Minnesota uniform. Yeo cautioned against a drop in play, but has been pleased with Granlund’s work with Parise and Pominville.
"That’s again what we’re working with, with the young players, is you know, let’s try to avoid these peaks and valleys," Yeo said. "I’m OK with the peaks, it’s the other part that we got to try and avoid, I should say. But it’s quite often a challenge, especially after they’ve had a lot of success and had a really strong game. Certainly when you’re putting him on a line with Parise and Pominville, it’s tough. You can’t have average games and we’re asking a lot of him, but he’s shown he’s capable, too."
A tough rookie season saw Granlund split time between the Wild and the American Hockey League. The playmaker who had become a cult hero in his native Finland struggled to adapt to the smaller ice surface and bigger, faster players in the NHL.
Granlund didn’t have the time to react he was used to playing on the bigger ice sheet in international play and the Finnish Elite League. In the AHL, he had 10 goals and 18 assists in 29 games, but finished with just two goals and six assists in 27 games for the Wild.
"I realized last season I’m just not a good enough player right now," Granlund said. "I’m not skating good enough. I’m not in good enough shape, so I wanted to be ready to come here when training camp starts and be ready to play right away."
Granlund took the experiences from last season and grew from them, working on his weaknesses over the summer.
"I realized, OK, this is the highest level of the game and you need to be much better if you want to play in this league," Granlund said. "I think that was a good thing for me to realize."
Parise (at 5-foot-11, 197 pounds) understood the tough transition for Granlund (5-foot-10, 186 pounds).
"I think just like every player, I think he had to go through a little adjustment, especially every smaller player," Parise said. "I’ve been, we all go through it, it’s an adjustment to the league and to learn what you can do with the puck and what you can’t do, and how quick you’ve got to get rid of it. I think he’s done a really good job of adapting to that."
Coincidentally, Granlund’s first chance to reach Minnesota’s top line and play with Parise arrived because of the ankle injury suffered by Mikko Koivu, Granlund’s Finnish countryman. Granlund might even be taking Koivu’s spot on Finland’s top line.
With Koivu being forced out of the Olympics after ankle surgery, reports had Granlund practicing on Finland’s top line with 18-year-old Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers and 43-year-old Teemu Selanne as Olympic practices started Monday.
"He’s been playing very good each and every time he’s been part of Team Finland," Koivu said. "So, I expect a lot from him. But obviously you don’t want to put any pressure on him either. It’s not about, obviously, one player. It’s about the team, which has always been that as Team Finland. But yeah, I hope nothing but the best for Granny and obviously for the whole team and I’m sure they’re going to do just fine."
Granlund’s continually developing game will have another chance to catch someone else’s eye.