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Flames' Granlund ready to make his mark

by Kevin Woodley

ABBOTSFORD -- Calgary Flames prospect Markus Granlund always will be the younger brother of Mikael Granlund, who is a year older and was picked a round earlier by the Minnesota Wild.

The big question is whether Markus always will be known as Mikael's little brother. Midway through his first season in North America, the Flames think their Granlund might just escape that shadow.

Mikael, who was taken ninth in the 2010 NHL Draft, has five goals and 28 points in 44 games in his second NHL season. Markus, picked in the second round (No. 45) by Calgary in 2011, leads the Abbotsford Heat and all American Hockey League rookies with 19 goals, and his 34 points in 41 games rank second in team scoring and fifth among rookies.

"A young star in the waiting," Heat coach Troy Ward said.

Markus Granlund leads the Abbotsford Heat and all AHL rookies with 19 goals. (Photo: Getty Images)

Comparisons between the brothers are inevitable, especially after they played on the same line for HIFK in SM-liiga, Finland's top professional league in 2011-12. But whether on the international stage, in highlight reels or coming to North America, where he had 10 goals and 28 points in his first 29 AHL games last season, Mikael always seems a step ahead.

"He [Markus] is always in the shadows of his older brother and I think that really drives him," said Craig Conroy, whose role as a special assistant to the general manager for the Flames includes player development duties. "I've talked to his mom about the brothers and they get along great but there is competition and he has always taken a little bit of a back seat. So even his mom said Markus wants to prove to everybody he is a player also. With that kind of fire and his work ethic, I have a feeling he has a big upside. Markus never says it to me but I can tell he wants to prove to everybody there is another Granlund."

Granlund didn't say much to anyone early this season.

Not entirely comfortable speaking English despite understanding it perfectly, the 20-year-old was quiet in the media and the locker room, according to teammate and fellow Finn Joni Ortio.

Ortio, who is in his second stint with the Heat after spending most of the previous two seasons back in Finland, knows the adjustment off the ice can be a lot harder than on it. So he helped Granlund early this season.

"It was a struggle for him to start the season over here, not speaking the language that well," Ortio said. "His English is much better than he thinks but he's not confident and comfortable speaking out, so I have been trying to tell him to just speak up. Guys aren't going to make fun of you if you mess up a word."

Granlund is more comfortable now, even with the media.

"When I came here the first month everything was new," Granlund said. "Now I know how everything works here and so no problem."

That Granlund stuck with it after a rough start says a lot because according to Conroy he could have gone home after the first month.

"He had a clause in his contract to go back," Conroy said. "Instead he stayed and that was big for us. For me it said he wants to be here. He wants to play in the NHL."

It was an easier choice because the adjustments on the ice weren't as difficult as off it. Part of that comes from two seasons in SM-liiga and one of the closest to North America in terms of physical play.

Despite the similarities in play, Conroy says now he wasn't sure how the 5-foot-11, 185-pound center would adapt.

"How is he going to respond when he gets punched in the face going to the front of net," Conroy said. "But he doesn't back down from any of that. He has real grit to him. He has a little bit of an edge."

Granlund also has shown more finish than expected.

Billed as a playmaking center going into the 2011 NHL Draft, Granlund has displayed a deft scoring touch in the AHL, which doesn't surprise Ortio. As Abbotsford's No. 1 goalie prior to his recall to the Flames on Monday, and a teammate last season with HIFK Helsinki, Ortio has seen enough of Granlund in practice to recognize why he is scoring.

"He's a smart dude. He reads the goalie," Ortio said. "It's not like he just shoots at the net. He's got his head up. He looks where the goalie is and where the room is he can score. That's something you are born with, that awareness he has. He always knows where his linemates are and how to pick a spot when he shoots."

His ability to find teammates opens opportunities to shoot and has left goalies guessing, said Conroy. Granlund isn't likely to score from long range but has a quick, deceptive snap shot from inside the top of the faceoff circles.

"Definitely a pass-first guy but he's not afraid to shoot," Conroy said.

Not that there isn't still work to do for Granlund defensively and physically. That he recently added penalty killing to his duties and scored shorthanded is a good sign. As for his body, Conroy saw enough improvement in Granlund between summer development camp and main camp in the fall to know the 20-year-old put in the work they requested, improving his skating to the point it's no longer a concern.

The next step for Conroy is getting Granlund into an NHL game. He was called up briefly in early January but didn't play.

Much like his first month in the AHL, Granlund sees that first call-up as an adjustment period that will help him in the NHL later on.

"It was a big thing to go there and see how everything goes, and now if they call me up again I know what's going on," he said.

It's a call-up that Granlund believes he is prepared for.

"Yeah, I think I am ready for NHL," he said.

No translation needed.

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