HELSINKI – With the exception of Canada, most hockey nations are continually worried about their ability to develop new talent. And then, with regular intervals, along comes a kid that brings hope to everybody. In Finland, at least for now, Mikael Granlund seems to be The One, and for good reason.
He proved during his SM-liiga rookie season that he can play with the big boys. He was voted Rookie of the Year in the SM-liiga, and in July, he was selected early in the NHL Entry Draft, and that, if anything, is the stamp of approval for all young players.
Only five Finns have been drafted higher than Granlund who went to Minnesota as ninth overall, and those five don’t include the two biggest stars of Finnish hockey in the last two decades: Saku Koivu and Teemu Selänne.
Last season, Granlund - having moved from Kärpät Oulu to HIFK Helsinki - scored 40 points in 43 games, finishing third in team scoring as an 18-year-old. This season, HIFK fans - and Finnish hockey fans - expect even more from him.
“I’m really looking forward to the new season. I learned a lot last year, and it was great to get a taste of what it’s like to play in a professional league, the whole experience was fantastic,” Granlund told IIHF.com before the SM-liiga opening game.
A part of the fans’ optimism is based on the fact that at 18, Granlund is bound to get better just by getting stronger both physically and mentally.
“It’s obvious just by looking at him that Mikael has got a lot stronger and bigger. His skating is faster and more powerful, and his whole appearance shows how hard he has worked all summer. He has got the eye of the tiger,” HIFK head coach Kari Jalonen said.
An ankle injury he suffered in a tennis match in the pre-season kept Granlund out of action a few weeks, but he says he’s ready for the season. His hockey sense is as good as it ever was, but in the pre-season games he sometimes was in a little bit of a stealth mode and wait for the puck to come to him.
Some of that may also be due to the fact that he’s back at centre ice again, having spent last season as a winger.
In fact, Granlund enters the season as a first-line centre on a team that’s expected to finish in the top three in the regular-season standings, and is often mentioned as one of the favourites to go all the way.
And the discussion often involves two players: There’s Mikael Granlund, and there’s Ville Peltonen, a favourite to be the league MVP this season.
“It’s been a privilege to just observe him and see how professional he is,” Granlund said of Peltonen.
“His attention to details, and how he does everything as well as he can, how he carries himself, it’s impressive. I’d be stupid not to try to learn from him,” he added.
And stupid, he’s not. Not on the ice, and not off it. Outside the arena, he’s a high-school kid who tries to deal with school.
“I have to do a lot of my school work on my own, at home. Most of it, actually. I guess I could do even better, but I do want to graduate, school’s important,” he said.
“My life’s not all hockey, but of course, hockey comes first. I love hockey and I could just play the game all the time, but I like to do a lot of other things, too. I watch a lot of movies,” Granlund says, and adds that Adam Sandler’s earlier movies are his favourites.
Coach Jalonen describes his young prodigy and can’t help but smile.
“He’s the same lovable rascal as before, very unspoiled. He takes things easy, and he doesn’t get pressure get to him. I hope he’ll be the new star of Finnish hockey. Of course he’ll play in the NHL, and I hope that in five years, he’ll be an important player in whichever team he’ll be playing for,” he said.Notebook:
- Most of the players interviewed during the SM-liiga kickoff even named Kärpät’s Kamil Kreps as their favourite to win the league scoring title. The Czech forward scored six goals and 14 points in 11 games in the European Trophy pre-season competition.
- Kärpät also has the biggest player budget in the SM-liiga, 2.8 million euro, followed by two Helsinki teams, HIFK (2.7 million) and Jokerit (2.6 million). Ilves Tampere has the smallest player budget at 1.5 million euro.
- Tappara Tampere signed Kevin Doell and the Pelicans Lahti former NHLer Mike York to one-year deals. York was on Team USA’s Olympic silver-winning team in 2002, and scored over 300 points in 579 NHL games with the New York Rangers, the Edmonton Oilers, and the New York Islanders. Last year, he spent with the Rochester Americans in the AHL. Doell scored 37 points with the Chicago Wolves in the AHL last season.