ST. PAUL, Minn. The NHL lockout was both a blessing and a curse for Minnesota Wild prospect Mikael Granlund.
The 20-year-old Finnish center spent part of the lockout playing for the Houston Aeros, Minnesota's affiliate in the American Hockey League. While with the Aeros, though, Granlund suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for a month.
When he was healthy, Granlund was able to adjust not only to American culture and the English language but also to the style of hockey played in North America. He scored eight goals and added 13 assists in 21 games for Houston and earned AHL Rookie of the Month honors for October.
Now that the NHL's lockout is finally over, Granlund is looking to take his skills to an even bigger stage.
"It was fun down there. Now I'm here. I get to do what I want to do, play in the NHL, and that's my dream," Granlund said Wednesday, his second day of skating with his new Wild teammates at Xcel Energy Center. "I'm really excited. I think all the other guys and all the fans and everybody who likes hockey is really excited now."
The Wild are certainly excited that Granlund will be joining the mix. After being drafted ninth overall in the first round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Granlund opted to stay in his native Finland to play for HIFK Helsinki. This past May, he signed a three-year contract to join Minnesota.
While the lockout delayed his arrival to the NHL, Granlund is finally here and he's making a strong impression already. Even in two days of the team's unofficial practices, Granlund's skills are evident. His vision on the ice and his puck handling abilities are signs that this kid has something special.
"His puck sense, his puck skills, they're elite," said Wild coach Mike Yeo. "His ability to help us generate offense 5-on-5 and on the power play is going to be a huge addition. What I really got to appreciate the more I watched him play was the subtleties of his game, how hard he competes defensively and on pucks and his attention to detail away from the puck. He plays a very mature game."
Added new Wild defenseman Ryan Suter: "He's got all the tools. Hopefully he can carry that over to being successful in the NHL."
Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom has known about Granlund for years back in hockey-crazed Finland. He is also part owner of the team Granlund played for back in their home country.
Granlund has been making headlines in Finland since he was young. Helping his country win the 2011 IIHF World Championships alongside new Wild teammate and fellow Finn Mikko Koivu helped put Granlund's name on an even bigger platform as a 19-year-old. In that tournament, he scored a seemingly impossible goal against Russia that was turned into a stamp in Finland and made him a YouTube sensation nationally.
"For sure you hear about good juniors growing up. I don't even know how old he was then. It was probably six, seven, eight years ago when I first heard about him," Backstrom said. "In Finland, the World Championships, that's huge for hockey. So when Finland won that, Mikael being a big part of that, scoring a nice goal. Even before that he was pretty recognized, but after that I think everyone pretty much knew who he is."
Having Finland natives Backstrom and Koivu already on the Wild should help make Granlund's transition to the NHL and to Minnesota an easier one. He's still only been in the Twin Cities for a few days and is still getting settled in.
All of that will take care of itself, though, Granlund said. Right now, he's focusing on playing hockey.
"I'll do all I can for the team," he said. "I'll try to make my linemates better and try to make some plays. Try to play as good as I can and have fun on the ice. That's my game."
Granlund will have just over a week to prepare for his first NHL game, as the season is expected to start on Jan. 19. It'll be a crash course for the Finnish phenom, but his teammates believe he has the skills to contribute right away.
"He's a hard worker, loves the game. Great vision, good hands, understands the game real well," Backstrom said. "I don't think you should put too much expectation on a guy coming into the NHL his first year. He (needs) enough time to grow into the game, grow into the team and the league.
"It's going to take time to get to know everything, but he's got all the tools to be one of the best players here."
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