Mikael Granlund entered the Minnesota sports scene with a spotlight fixed on him. He was the golden child, the Finnish Baby Jesus. He was destined to lead the Wild to glory.
Like most talented players, Granlund was looking to make his mark as a center. He spent the better part of his SM-liiga (now known as Liiga) career on the wing, but he was drafted with the belief he would play center and it didn’t take long for the Minnesota Wild to plug him into that role, for better or worse.
Playing Granlund at the pivot had its advantages. At an early age it forced him to develop a two-way game rather than becoming a one-trick pony who lived and died by his point production. The experience gave his game some much needed balance that playing selectively on the wing could not.
That development did come at a cost though. As the defensive acumen continued to grow, the offensive tools, the very things that made him such an electrifying prospect in the 2010 draft, remained stuck in neutral.
To Granlund’s credit, he has always shown flashes of the smooth playmaking ability that made him the top rated European skater in his draft year according to the NHL Central Scouting Bureau. The problem is that it never developed into a consistent tool like many projected.
Some of that blame can be lofted at Granlund, but a good chunk should be placed on former head coach Mike Yeo as well. The system that Yeo installed revolved around playing a simple, defensive-minded style of hockey. A premium was placed on guys who could deliver a complete three-zone game, and nowhere was that more important than at the center position. There wasn’t room for creativity or offensive freedom, so Granlund did the only thing he could. He became a two-way player.
For most players that wouldn’t have been an issue. They would be praised for their ability to adapt to the needs of the organization. But Granlund was different. It wasn’t good enough for him to be just another good two-way center in the ilk of Mikko Koivu. Expectations were far greater for the former ninth-overall pick. People still believed that he should be a playmaker despite the fact that he never actually got the chance to become one.
At least he didn’t get that chance until now. All of those hopes and dreams of Granlund being an offensive wizard have been renewed thanks to one simple decision: moving him to the wing.
Granlund isn’t a complete stranger to his newfound position. There have been brief moments in his career with Minnesota that he was asked to play on the wing, but most of his experience with the position comes from the international game. The Finnish national team has opted to play him on the wing on multiple occasions. One such occurrence was during the 2014 Sochi games, where the then 23-year-old was named to the all-tournament after producing seven points in six games.
Minnesota, who has always seemed to be short on talent down the middle, was hesitant to follow suit. Granlund was drafted as a center for the purpose of filling the positional need of the organization, but stubbornness gave way to necessity when the Wild’s offense struggled down the stretch last year. Interim head coach John Torchetti experimented with Granlund playing alongside Koivu and Zach Parise but made the move permanent when the Wild lost both Parise and Thomas Vanek for the postseason.
While the move didn’t spur the Wild to a series win, it gave the world a glimpse of what Granlund could do on the wing. His three points – one goal, two assists – in five games was respectable, but it was how he played that reignited hope.
For the first time in a long time he looked comfortable on the puck. He had space to maneuver thru the offensive zone and didn’t have to worry about being the first forward back if the puck was turned over. He even began to shoot more, tallying 20 shots over the five-game postseason span. He was finally resembling the playmaker that so many people had projected him to be.
Luckily for everyone involved, newly minted head coach Bruce Boudreau had already taken notice of Granlund’s success playing on the wing. In a decision that was helped along by the signing of Eric Staal, Boudreau permanently placed Granlund on Koivu’s wing.
The move couldn’t have come at a better time for Granlund. At 24-years-old he is transitioning from the developmental stage of his career to a point where he is expected to be a key contributor to the organization. Another year as a pivot could have meant further deterioration of his promising skill set. But a year of playing on the wing could mean the return of the offensive dynamo. At the very least it won’t hurt his progression.
Will Granlund ever truly live up to the hype that surrounded him once upon a time? Only time will tell. But at the very least he will finally be given the chance to try and reach it.
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