***MORE NHL PREMIERE FINLAND COVERAGE***
Minnesota Wild fans can't wait for the Mikael Granlund
era to begin. Ever since General Manager Chuck Fletcher called his name last June, Wild diehards have tried following him from a distance.
They've seen his highlights
online, and they've heard about how he was an 18-year-old kid racking up points against professional men, some of whom are old enough to be his father. They've heard experts assert that he could have been ready to make the jump to the NHL this past fall.
The thought of him coming over to play alongside Mikko Koivu
, arguably the most popular Finnish player in the country, is enough to the State of Hockey to think about incorporating baby blue into team flag.
Granlund is excited to make it to the NHL as well, but like many Finns, he's not one to overly express his excitement. In fact, he's enjoying himself quite a bit right now here in his hometown of Helsinki, where he plays in front of boisterous crowds each game and endears himself to his fans with his skill and intelligence.
"It would be exciting," said Granlund when asked if he's planning on joining the Wild next year. "I don't think about the NHL right now, but of course it's a dream to play there. But now, I can only focus on this team and this League."
Like other Finns who have been a part of the organization, Granlund is soft-spoken and modest about his game. But if you venture through a sea of red jerseys to talk to fans, they don't hold back about how skilled a player he is, and can be.
"He will be maybe the most talented Finnish player of all time when he gets older," said 16-year-old Tuomas Eloholma, who wore a #64 Granlund jersey while watching his favorite player rack up a goal and three assists in an 11-3 trouncing of Assat in a Finnish League matchup.
Young Tuomas was just one H.I.F.K. fan in a unique arena that was packed with red jerseys and filled with flag-waving fans that chant without taking a breath until intermission. It's an amazing atmosphere to be a part of, but from the way it sounds, Wild management is hoping it's his last season in Helsinki. Granlund's performance on Saturday did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm, as the entire front office watched him from a suite.
"We'll potentially sign him this year and get him over next year to give him a try," said Wild Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr during the first intermission. "He's a young guy still, and he's got to get stronger, quicker and faster. But if you put him with better players, I think he'll be a very good pro."
Technically, Granlund is a pro in his current League. Although he's only 18, he's in his second year playing alongside much older veterans. That includes his linemate, former NHLer Ville Peltonen, who leads the team in scoring.
"He's still a really great player," said Granlund. "It's so fun to play with him."
But Granlund is racking up points on his own. Through eight games this season, he's scored three goals and added seven assists. Last year, he came close to averaging a point per game in scoring 40 (13-27=40) in 43 games. In case you're wondering, that's not normal. Most players his age hone their skills in the Finnish Jr. League.
Prior to being drafted, Mikko Koivu
spent the 2000-2001 season playing with the TPS Turku Jr. team for 26 games. He piled up nine goals and 36 assists in those outings, but when he graduated to the Senior League that season, he mustered one assist in 21 games. The following year, he notched four goals and three assists in 48 games.
This isn't to point out that Koivu struggled, but rather to show how uncommon Granlund's dominance is. Much to the chagrin of the rest of the Finnish teams, Granlund continues to get better. On Saturday, he played on the top line, and saw extensive power play minutes. He always seemed to put himself where he knew the puck would find him. When it did, it didn't stay there long because he dished pinpoint passes before defenders knew he had the puck.
"Compared to last season, I think I'm better than last season," he said. "I'll work hard and we'll see what happens."
Work ethic isn't a concern of the Wild brass. They love everything they've seen from their prospect, especially his head, which is covered with spiky blond hair.
"He's a very intelligent hockey player," says Flahr. "His hockey sense, competitiveness and skill level are elite. He's a talented kid and we were happy to get him when we got him [with the ninth overall selection]."
The hockey fans in Finland were also happy Minnesota got him, considering the team is already a favorite here due to Koivu, Niklas Backstrom
and Antti Miettinen starring for the club.
"We have really good fans," said Granlund. "I know the Wild has really good fans. It's always more fun to play with nice fans."
Nice, and knowledgeable. Like Eloholma, who summed up Granlund's game with this:
"If you don't know his age, you might think he is 30."