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Wild's Granlund thriving after tough rookie season

by Dan Myers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Minnesota Wild forward Mikael Granlund has been dealing with high expectations his entire life.

The 22-year-old center began his professional hockey career at age 16 in his native Finland and quickly became a household name. The Wild made him the ninth player selected at the 2010 NHL Draft. Granlund's hockey exploits are easy to follow; all you have to do is type his name into the search box on YouTube and any number of his highlights will pop up.

Mikael Granlund
Center - MIN
GOALS: 6 | ASST: 28 | PTS: 34
SOG: 84 | +/-: 0
Granlund is perhaps best known for his lacrosse-style goal against Russia in the semifinals of the 2011 World Hockey Championship, which made him an instant internet sensation. Back home, the goal turned Granlund from a successful hockey player into a national rock star. It wasn't uncommon for paparazzi to follow Granlund out to dinner or shopping.

That's a lot of pressure for anyone to face, especially for a shy 19-year-old kid from Oulu, Finland, who would rather go about his business in the shadows. The normal pressures of being a high first-round draft pick are nothing compared to those in hockey-mad Finland, where fans are always on the lookout for the successor to Teemu Selanne, the 43-year-old Anaheim Ducks star and pride of an entire nation.

Granlund spent two additional seasons with HIFK Helsinki in Finland after being drafted before announcing his intentions to come to North America. He did it with a video posted on the Wild's website that, until the signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter a few months later, was by far the most viewed item in team history.

Wild fans eager to see Granlund make YouTube highlights in Minnesota were forced to wait a little longer when the lockout delayed the start of the 2012-13 NHL season. Of more concern was that once the season finally did start, Granlund seemed overwhelmed by the NHL game.

Once viewed as a candidate for the Calder Trophy, Granlund spent his rookie season shuttling between St. Paul and the Wild's American Hockey League affiliate in Houston. He scored two goals and had six assists and was minus-4 in 27 games; some worried that Granlund was too small or too slow and that his game wouldn't translate to the smaller NHL-sized ice.

"It was a tough year last year. I learned a lot," Granlund said. "I realized how good you need to be to play in this League. I learned how to play the game."

Selanne, who waited four years to come to the NHL after being drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 1988, empathized with Granlund.

"It's never easy, especially if you're the guy who is supposed to play on the first two lines and you're struggling a little bit," Selanne said. "It's very easy to lose your confidence and that's what this game is all about. You just have to find it back some way or you're going to be in trouble."

At the end of last season, Wild coach Mike Yeo and team officials met with Granlund and provided him with some constructive criticism, along with a road map for Granlund in order for him to come back ready to go in year two.

Granlund committed himself to that plan last summer and returned to Minnesota in the fall a new player.

"Last summer, one month I was skating and practicing with him and you could see the body language and there was no way he would again go through a year like that," Selanne said. "He's a totally different guy and he really pushed himself. It's fun to see when something doesn't go exactly the way you wanted then you bounce back like that. It's fun."

Granlund will play in his 53rd game of the season Thursday when the Wild host the New York Rangers. His six goals are a product of his pass-first mentality, but his 28 assists are one behind the team lead.

"He approaches every game with the mindset that he's going to make a difference," Yeo said. "I think last year, coming in, I don't want to say he felt his way into it, but he didn't have the same confidence or the understanding of what he's capable of. Now, he expects it of himself."

But more than his play on the ice, Granlund exudes the confidence of a player who has spent virtually his entire adult life in the spotlight.

"He's a different player this year," Parise said. "He can see plays as they're developing, which, when you're a shooter, you love to have in a centerman."

"Confidence is such a big part of anyone's success," said forward Jason Pominville, who leads the Wild with 24 goals and has spent most of the season skating on Granlund's right side. "He came into camp, had a great camp, proved he was a center and proved he was reliable. He's playing with a bunch of confidence, and that's a big part of it to me."

Granlund was chosen to play for Finland in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but with a roster loaded with veteran centers, including Wild teammate Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Granlund's expectations for playing time were tempered.

However, injuries forced both players to miss the Olympics, moving Granlund into a major role.

"Obviously, when a few of our guys got hurt just before the tournament, some other guys needed to step up," Granlund said. "There were a lot of guys who stepped up. I didn't think about that, I knew I would have a chance to play power play and things like that."

Granlund finished tied for third in scoring in Sochi with seven points. He was named to the tournament's all-star team and helped lead the injury-riddled Finns to a bronze medal. But to Granlund, the best part of the Olympic experience was skating on a line with Selanne, his idol growing up.

"I can't even describe that," Granlund said. "He's been such a big idol for me and for a lot of Finnish players. He's done so much for Finnish hockey. Just to have a chance to play with him and on the same line that was great. To see how good of a player he still is, that he can play at that level at 43, that's something I can't even really understand."

Since returning from the Olympics, Granlund has picked up right where he left off. Koivu missed more than two months with a fractured ankle, forcing Granlund to play top-line minutes with the Wild. He's kept that spot, even though Koivu returned last week.

"He's bang-on with our systems in every aspect," Yeo said. "He's got a really good understanding, as a young player, of how important that is. He's going to get more ice-time, more role and responsibility because of it."

Granlund's biggest fan might be the player he grew up idolizing.

"I've known Mikael maybe three, four years. The last couple summers I've been skating with him. Even though it's just summer hockey and training together, you feel right away if you have special chemistry with somebody. He's a very special player," Selanne said. "He can see the game. He has unbelievable skills. When you play with a guy like him, you tend to be more active because you know if you find an opening, the puck is going to come. That's a great feeling for the player."

Selanne feels Granlund is up to the task of becoming part of the next generation of Finnish stars.

"Granlund is going to be one of those young guys to look up to," Selanne said. "It's a very important job. He's going to do good." correspondent Aaron Vickers contributed to this report.

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