Jason Pominville got his first taste of Mikael Granlund last season. The young center was recalled as part of the Black Aces, minor league players who practice with their NHL team during the playoffs.
Pominville was recovering from an upper-body injury as the Wild readied for its first playoff appearance in five seasons. Skating in a three-on-three game the winger played alongside Granlund and, already, chemistry was beginning to blossom.
“I knew at that point that he was obviously a talented player and he had great potential,” Pominville said. “Even when we were playing those games, we were able to find each other and make some plays. I think it’s been kind of an easy adjustment for both of us because our styles of play kind of fit each other well.”
The pairing would breed one of the most productive Wild scoring duos in the 2013-14 season. As of March 5, Pominville led the team with 22 goals, 18 at even strength. Granlund has registered assists on eight of those even strength goals, or 44 percent. Meanwhile, Pominville has assisted three of Granlund’s six goals, one of which was a power play goal. When the pair hooks up, they’ve accounted for about 10 percent of the team’s even-strength goals.
That success hinged on Granlund getting comfortable on the NHL sized rink.
When they first met, the now 22-year-old was in the middle of a learning curve. Growing up in Finland, Granlund knew the big ice well. In his final season playing in Finland for HIFK Helsinki, he picked up 51 points (20-31=51) in 45 games. Over three seasons in the Finnish Elite League, he averaged a point-per-game with Helsinki.
The transfer to the smaller NHL rink for the 2012-13 season was challenging and eye-opening.
For the center, last year was, in a word, rough. After spending the lockout in Houston, Granlund made his NHL debut on Jan. 19. The 2010 first-round pick seemed to immediately meet expectations, netting his first tally in his debut. Things took a turn and he began to struggle.
Through 27 games played with the Wild, Granlund scored a pair of goals and gathered six assists for eight points in his rookie season. His 2012-13 stats were stronger in Houston where he had 28 points (10-18=28) in 29 contests.
“In my mind, I’m a better player right now,” the center said. “First of all, last season was my first season here. With the small rink and everything, a lot of things were new to me. I realized last season what I needed to do to get better here and be able to play the game at the level I want to play at. I think that was a big thing for me. Last summer was really big for me. I worked hard. I feel much more comfortable playing here now.”
He certainly has the stats to back up that belief. Though, before long, Granlund got the chance to return to the big ice as a part of Team Finland in the 2014 Olympic Games.
Perhaps the toughest Olympic task he faced was describing his experience in a single word. He was silent. You could almost hear the words shuffling through his head as he searched for the right one. The hesitation was understandable. Trying to sum up his first Olympic Tournament in which he led Team Finland offensively, was recognized individually and walked away with hardware, is a difficult task.
Admittedly, the question was unfair, particularly considering English is his second language. Eventually he said, “It was great,” his smile heard clearly on his voice.
After a brief breath, he added more, breaking the rules of the query.
“I didn’t expect everything that was going on there. It was pretty cool and I really loved to play those games.”
The Oulu, Finland native put on a show playing for his home country. The 22-year-old led Team Finland with his seven points, gathered from three goals and four assists. He also registered a team leading 20 shots on goal over his six games played and totaled 109:33 time on ice, an average of 18:15 per game — the most of any Finnish skater.
Beyond putting up impressive stats, the young Finn got the chance to skate alongside his childhood idol, Teemu Selanne.
“It was such a big honor,” Granlund said. “Everything he has done for us — to have a chance to play with him, I don’t even know how to describe that. Like everybody saw, he’s still such a good player and MVP of the tournament. That says a lot about what kind of player and person he is.”
While Selanne earned MVP honors, Granlund’s play also garnered individual reward as he was named to the All-Tournament team. Individual achievements aside, Granlund also left the Games with a highly coveted souvenir few are able to claim, a Bronze Medal, with a 5-0 win over Team USA in the third-place game.
The feat was an impressive for a Finnish team that entered the tournament short on some of its top talent due to injuries as Saku Koivu, Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula withdrew prior to the tournament.
“We knew we didn’t have the best players from Finland,” Granlund said, referencing the injuries. “But with Team Finland, we stick together. We play together and that’s how we have success. That’s how we will succeed in the future. It was great to see we can play some really good hockey even if we’re still short players.”
The withdrawals left the Finns depleted at center, allowing Granlund to step into a top role on one of the biggest of stages. Before long, many saw the Games as Granlund’s coming out party as he continued to impress in each contest.
“Watching him play against Canada and starting overtime, going head to head against Sidney Crosby — it can’t be anything but good for him,” Head Coach Mike Yeo said prior to the Bronze Medal game. “The fact that he’s performing at the level that he is, the fact that he’s doing it against the world’s best players, I think it’s been a tremendous experience for him.”
“To see him go to the Olympics and play the way he has was pretty impressive,” Pominville said. “He was able to thrive even more on the big ice where he can really use his ability, his play-making ability. His vision, his holding onto the puck was to another level over there. It was nice to see him play.”
Though it appeared Granlund tapped into a well of scoring, play-making and overall success in Sochi, back on the big ice, the center and his teammates will tell you he’s been playing that way all season.
“I think he’s done well this year,” Pominville said. “Obviously that was a different stage. It’s such a short tournament that if you get off to a good start — which I think he did, he had three points in the first game — you kind of feel good about yourself and that carries on through the next game and the next…He got off to the start he wanted and was able to carry it through. I wasn’t surprised at all.”
Leading into the games, the center was fresh off a five-game stretch in which he netted two goals and tallied six assists for eight points. For much of the season, Granlund has hung around the top of the stat chart. At the start of the Olympic break, he had 28 points on five goals and 23 assists in 46 games played. His 28 points ranked him fifth on the Wild while his assists ranked third.
“To be honest, it doesn’t matter to me what other people say,” Granlund said. “I think I was playing good hockey before the tournament. This whole season has been much, much better than last season. I’m going in the right direction. I don’t think it was anything that different from the hockey that I played here before the tournament.”
With about a month left in the regular season, Granlund is hoping to continue what he’s started. And with his first Olympics behind him, his focus is back on the Wild.
“He has a chance to make it a really great season for himself,” Yeo said, noting that each phase of his season has been strong. “If he can finish this off on a real positive note then its been a great year for him."
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