They call coach Bruce Boudreau ‘Gabby’ for a well-documented reason. He’s a people person. He loves to meet with his players and personnel on an individual basis and find out, as he puts it to THN, “what makes them tick.” And when he arrived in Minnesota to take over behind the Wild’s bench for 2016-17, he fixated on Mikael Granlund. He saw a shackled star waiting to be released.
Minnesota nabbed Granlund ninth overall at the 2010 draft, and scouts raved about him while he developed further in Finland. He lit up a man’s league when he was still transitioning out of boyhood. In our 2012 edition of THN Future Watch, which ranks all 30 franchises’ farm systems and the overall top prospects, Granlund finished second on the individual list behind only Evgeny Kuznetsov. The scouting report predicted Granlund would be the Wild’s first high-end offensive star since Marian Gaborik. It called Granlund a ‘Finnish superstar’ and predicted he’d make the Wild and challenge for the Calder Trophy in 2012-13.
Granlund has been one big tease since then, however. He did play for the Wild in lockout-shortened 2012-13 after excelling in his lone AHL stint but didn’t make a large impact. The 2013-14 season previewed what Granlund might become. He had eight goals and 41 points in 63 games and flourished at the Sochi Olympics on Finland’s top line with Teemu Selanne and Aleksander Barkov. Granlund flashed big-time ability in the playoffs for Minnesota, too, with four goals in 13 games, most notably this highlight-reel overtime winner against the Colorado Avalanche.
Granlund, then, stalled after that breakout campaign. He spent the next couple seasons offensively stagnant, struggling to score goals. The Wild couldn’t decide if his long-term career trajectory made him a center. He seemed well on his way to becoming a fixture in their lineup for years to come after 2013-14 but, following a 2014-15 campaign in which he had just eight goals again and 39 points in 68 games, he played his way into a bridge contract as a restricted free agent. It was no longer a guarantee he’d become a star. He posted similar numbers in 2015-16 and turned 24. He was a prospect no more.
Still, Boudreau saw leftover potential to unleash. He didn’t want Granlund thinking so much. Boudreau just wanted Granlund to be Granlund.
“All I’ve done is try to give him confidence and let him do what he wants within the confines of the way we play,” Boudreau said. “We have a system and everything, but in the confines of the system, he’s got full autonomy to make plays and do what he wants. And that might be different than what he’s done in the past. He’s a tremendous talent for us.”
Boudreau added he only gets on Granlund’s case if he tries to finesse things too much in tight games when the team’s protecting a lead. Other than that, it’s carte blanche. The result: the massive explosion we’ve been waiting for. Granlund’s 24 goals in 69 games are more than he scored his past two seasons combined. His 65 points place him 11th in league scoring. And Granlund couldn’t be more thankful for Boudreau’s slack-loosening approach.
“That’s a big reason, especially my offensive game,” Granlund said. “He’s been right from the beginning just letting me play my game. He’s been especially offensively letting me play my game. He still wants me to play defense and do all the right things, but offensively there’s freedom. I can really play with my instincts. I think that’s been a big reason for me being more productive offensively. But at the same time, I really want to do other things than offense.”
That’s where line deployment comes in. Boudreau and the Wild have struck gold placing Granlund on fellow Finn and Wild captain Mikko Koivu’s right wing, with Jason Zucker on the left. The trio have become Minny’s top unit, contributing a lot of offense while also battling the other team’s top line every night. All three have managed to post 5-on-5 Corsi ratings higher than the team average, which is impressive given their quality of competition. All three rank near the bottom of the league in offensive zone starts among NHL forwards with at least 500 minutes played this season.
"You work as hard as you can. That’s the biggest thing. There are no magic tricks. You have to trust yourself.”
“We take a lot of pride in the way we want to work as a line,” Koivu said. “That’s the key we need, to out work the opponent. There are so many good players on every team that you have to be ready to work and be on top of our game every night if you want to be successful. For me personally, with those two, they’ve helped me a lot with their two-way hockey. They’re very responsible defensively. We have to play good defense to do offense. We always want to build on that.”
The irony is Boudreau has molded an effective two-way line not by demanding they play defensively responsible hockey, but by trusting that they’ll do it without prodding. He’s a personnel master, remember, and he’s identified three players whose natural tendencies make them 200-foot players. He said he did the exact same thing with his checking line of Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg in Anaheim.
“As good as they are – they knew they were playing against every team’s top line – I never once told them ‘Hey, just go out there and check,’ ” Boudreau said. “I put them out there knowing that they check, knowing that they’re responsible, but still trying to promote them to score goals.”
Boudreau got double-digit goal production from that Ducks line and a lot more in the playoffs, especially in 2014-15, when the line produced 14 goals in 16 games. He’s done the same with Zucker, Koivu and Granlund. Zucker has already almost doubled his career high in points and will set a new personal best with his next goal, which will be his 22nd. Koivu has reversed a trend of two straight years of declining offense. And Granlund, of course, has become that front-line scorer the Wild have pined for since Gaborik’s best years. Granlund’s on pace to finish with 49 assists and 77 points. Pierre-Marc Bouchard holds the franchise record for assists with 50. Gaborik owns the points mark at 83. Granlund is right there. He’s been especially productive since the start of December, with 19 goals and 51 points in 45 games. For perspective, Connor McDavid has 13 goals and 45 points in his past 45 games. Sidney Crosby has 19 goals and 49 points in his past 45 games. Of course that doesn’t put Granlund in their tier – but the fact he can produce at their level for more than half a season shows how far his game has progressed.
“I’ve been playing good hockey even before that,” Granlund said. “But when the team wins, individually you get some success, too. At the same time, you start to be more productive. You get some bounces. I’ve been lucky to play with really good players, too. It’s been fun, and when you get on a roll, you don’t need to stress about anything that much. You just go out there and play, and things just go your way. You work as hard as you can. That’s the biggest thing. There are no magic tricks. You have to trust yourself.”
Now the question is whether this winning team can win when it counts. The Wild have surrendered their division lead to the Chicago Blackhawks in recent weeks, largely because of losing three head-to-head battles in just over a month. The Hawks eliminated them from the post-season in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Granlund and especially Koivu seem uncomfortable with the mention of Chicago and the division battle. There’s a strong chance these two teams, which will be heavy favorites in their first-round matchups, lock horns in Round 2. Can the Wild slay what has clearly become their personal Minotaur team?
We’ll have to wait until the games to find out. But the Minnesota will at the very least ice its deepest, most dominant team yet, armed with one of the sport’s best top lines, its potential unlocked by Boudreau.
“If teams had experience and they won, they earned it, but at the same time we’re hungry to get better here,” Koivu said. “That drives us. And you can’t worry about that. What’s in the past is in the past. We’ve learned from it.”
THE LATEST HOCKEY NEWS PODCAST: