The combination of Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund is enticing. The Finnish national team gave the Wild a little taste of the duo in the World Cup of Hockey, and it was appetizing enough for Bruce Boudreau to give it a chance for the Wild’s upcoming season.
It’s hard not to like the idea of Koivu and Granlund skating alongside each other. The two have complimentary playing styles that in theory should be symbiotic. Koivu thrives as a two-way skater, offering stability in all three zones of the ice. Granlund is a facilitator, the guy who can create something out of absolutely nothing. Both can enable the other to do what they do best.
As enticing as the partnership may be, there are some major concerns. Specifically, their inability, or unwillingness, to shoot the puck.
In 2015-16 there were 117 forwards that logged over 1000 minutes of ice time at 5-v-5. When it came to individual shots per 60 minutes, Mikko Koivu finished 114th with an average of 5.01 while Mikael Granlund was 93rd with 6.08. Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident that is contained in the 2015-16 campaign. Neither Koivu nor Granlund has finished with more than 7.00 shots per 60 minutes in any of the three previous seasons.
These numbers shouldn’t be shocking to anyone who has watched the Minnesota Wild over the past few years. The organization has mastered the art of making one too many passes, and Koivu and Granlund have been the teams greatest artists.
If the Koivu and Granlund partnership is going to thrive, this is going to have to change. The bulk of that responsibility will likely be placed on Granlund by default.
In reality, Mikko Koivu isn’t going to suddenly develop a shooters mentality. At 33 he is slipping towards the inevitable regression that age brings, and his numbers over the past year has demonstrated that. His 1.02 scoring chances per 60 minutes at 5-v-5 was the lowest mark of any high usage forward in the NHL while his shot attempts per 60 minutes of 10.02 put him in the bottom 15% of the category. This isn’t new either. As you can see in the chart below his shots per 60 mins have been on the decline over the past four seasons. Expecting him to turn that around is not only unreasonable, but completely impossible.
Things don’t necessarily look any better for Granlund. He just managed to crack the 10 shot attempts per 60 minutes mark in 2015-16, finishing with 10.24. But at the very least there is an upward trajectory in Granlund’s numbers. 2015-16 saw him tally his highest marks in shot attempts, shots and scoring chances per 60 mins. Couple that progression with his move to the wing, which should create more shooting lanes, and it’s expected that Granlund’s shooting numbers should get a nice bump in 2016-17.
While we can expect Granlund to increase his shooting rate, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give the line a little shooting insurance by placing someone who isn’t afraid of letting go of the puck on their wing.
In theory, the most idealistic addition to the Koivu/Granlund line would be Zach Parise. The 32-year-old is familiar with both of the Finns, spending the better part of his four years in Minnesota skating alongside one or the other. He is also not afraid to shoot the puck, putting 8.89 shots on the opposing net for every 60 minutes of ice time at 5-v-5, which was only behind Jason Pominville on the Wild roster.
The problem with placing Parise on the wing of the Koivu/Granlund line is that Bruce Boudreau has already made it abundantly clear that Parise will play alongside newly signed Eric Staal on Minnesota’s top line. That might change depending upon the success of that line, but for now, it’s a fools dream.
Another name that is high on the list is Jason Zucker. Plenty of people will point to his struggles in 2015-16 and wonder why it earns him the chance of playing on the second line, but when you dig a little deeper you see exactly what he could bring to this duo.
First and foremost, he isn’t afraid of putting the puck on the net. His 14.86 shot attempts per 60 minutes was the highest mark on the Wild roster and his 4.03 scoring chances per 60 minutes was the 10th highest mark in the entire NHL for skaters with over 500 minutes. Zucker might have holes in his game, but his greatest strengths just happen to fill the weaknesses that Koivu and Granlund present.
Another option at the Wild’s disposal is Nino Niederreiter. While his underlying shooting numbers might not rival Parise or Zucker’s, Niederreiter has been a consistent offensive force, averaging 12.88 shot attempts per 60 minutes and 3.28 scoring chances while wearing the Wild sweater.
Given Niederreiter’s overall progression, it’s easy to imagine the Swiss native sliding into the left wing spot with Granlund and Koivu and producing the best numbers of his young career. The only problem is that his success with Erik Haula and Jason Pominville last year could force him back into that role for the sake of chemistry.
The good news is that the Minnesota Wild have Bruce Boudreau running the show, which means the decision of who will play with Koivu and Granlund will not be taken lightly. Boudreau understands the importance of filling in the weaknesses and playing up the strengths. He knows that in order for the Koivu and Granlund line to survive, they’ll need someone to actually shoot the puck.
All stats courtesy of Corsica