ST. PAUL, Minn. — Mikael Granlund entered the NHL with immense expectations for the young center.
Granlund was a cult hero in his native Finland, a world championships star and a one of the best players in the Finnish Elite League playing against players much older. He was the biggest name prospect entering the NHL last season, less than a year after The Hockey News named him the second-best prospect whose rights were owned by an NHL team.
Granlund signed last May with Minnesota, the team that made him the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 entry draft, and immediately had the Wild fan base clamoring to watch him in action.
“Obviously expectations were incredibly high and that is what it is,” Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said of Granlund after the season ended. “It was like our team, there were high expectations. We can’t always control those. But he’s been a top player at every level he’s played at.”
Granlund was having a successful season with the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League during the NHL lockout and then scored his first NHL goal in Minnesota first game of the regular season. Granlund’s season went south from there.
One of the youngest players in the league, Granlund struggled to adapt to the NHL and found himself back in Houston midway through the season. After a call-up in April and another demotion, he finished with two goals and six assists in 27 NHL games and was a minus-4. Even his time at Houston didn’t belie his NHL struggles. He was the sixth-leading scorer on the Aeros with 10 goals and 18 assists, despite playing only 29 games.
“At some point you lose your confidence and now you’re on the fourth line,” Fletcher said. “Now you’re sent down and now I call him up and then I send him down, so then you kind of get in that scenario and sometimes it’s hard for young players to find their way again. He’s a good kid.”
Granlund had just turned 21-years-old in February and was the 15th youngest player to play at least 20 games in the NHL this season, and was one of the few making the transition from overseas. Last year, playing for HIFK Helsinki in Finland, he had 20 goals and 31 assists in 45 games.
Playing in the NHL, after years of playing in leagues advanced for his age, was an adjustment for Granlund, who had succeeded as a talented playmaker on the bigger ice surfaces in Europe.
Fletcher, who said Granlund is one of the young players for the Wild “knocking on the door,” knows the adjustments Granlund needs to make.
“I just think that he’s not the biggest guy, so he’s going to have to get stronger,” Fletcher said. “But the big thing for him is just the pace of his play. It’s a quicker league over here than it is and he has to learn to do everything a little bit quicker. It’s partly speed and partly the pace of his play. It’s either coming across the line and slowing down and looking, like we used to do in the 80s, yet you can’t really do that anymore. You’ve got to come in with a little more speed, draw the ‘D’ off and create space that way. That’s different than what he’s done. He’s certainly capable of making that adjustment and he will get stronger and faster like most 20 year olds, and he’s a smart player, so he’ll adjust.”
And maybe those expectations won’t be so big next time around.