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A star is born: Mikael Granlund building on his breakout season

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The Finnish winger’s improvement has him delivering on his star potential.

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into this season, no one was quite sure what the Minnesota Wild had in Mikael Granlund.

Sure, Granlund was coming off a breakout season. He scored a career-high 26 goals, and his 69 points landed him in the NHL’s Top-20 in scoring. Moreover, he was arguably Minnesota’s MVP, putting up those numbers while excelling in a checking line role.

Usually when a player has that kind of year at the age of 25, their team moves heaven and earth to lock them up long-term. But there was reason for the Wild to hesitate to hand out a long-term, big-money deal to Granlund.

First, there’s what came before the breakout. Previously, Granlund hadn’t seen much success in his career. In his first full NHL seasons, he scored 41, 39, and 44 points. Granted, that was 4th on the Wild during that span, and ahead of fellow young NHLers Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle.

But it wasn’t nearly what was expected upon his arrival to the State of Hockey. Granlund was selected 9th overall in the 2010 Draft, and was pegged as a superstar from his selection. His performances in World Junior tournaments showed he could dominate his peers, but what really stood out was his production in Liiga, the Finnish professional league.

Granlund racked up 127 points in 129 games in Liiga, which is exceptional for a player aged 17-19. More impressive, Granlund’s dominance wasn’t built entirely on physical tools. He wasn’t blowing by everyone with his speed, nor was he out-muscling them. It came with the preternatural hockey sense and vision he possessed. Granlund just made things happen.

So when his production didn’t match the hype, nor match the production of fellow 2010 draftees such as Ryan Johansen, Jeff Skinner, or Vladimir Tarasenko, many had written off the young center’s potential.

So when new coach Bruce Boudreau switched him from center to wing, and Granlund responded with his 69 point season, that seemingly arrived out of nowhere.

Even then, there were signs that Granlund’s year was closer to a fluke than the birth of a superstar.

Granlund notched his 26 goals while shooting 14.7%. While the league’s best shooters can shoot close to 15% over their career, Granlund was not in that category. In the 240 games prior to the 2016-17 season, Granlund shot just 7.8%. When a player with that low of a shooting percentage all of a sudden doubles it, that’s a big red flag that regression is in order.

Then there was the matter of sorting out who was responsible for his success. Granlund’s skill was obvious last season, but it was hard to say who was the engine who drove the line he was on. Was Granlund’s vision the secret sauce? Or was it Jason Zucker’s ability to be a one-man breakout machine? Or perhaps it was Mikko Koivu’s defense that allowed the other two to be so offensively-minded?

Or... did they just catch lightning in a bottle, never to repeat that performance? After all, they shot an absurd 12% at 5-on-5. What would Granlund’s numbers look like if he got a few less bounces?

The contract Granlund got last offseason split the difference. He got the cap hit ($5.75 million) that his 2016-17 season merited. But instead of the 5-year contracts offered to Wild players in his peer group such as Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, or Jonas Brodin, Granlund was given just 3 years. It was a smart bet if you thought Granlund’s true talent level was closer to 50-60 points than 69.

But this year’s Granlund is not only proving that his breakout wasn’t a fluke. He’s even better.

Through 41 games, Granlund has 13 goals and 23 assists. On a per-game basis, Granlund’s actually scoring more than last season (0.88 points per game this year, 0.85 last). More encouraging, he’s doing despite him and his teammates getting less shooting luck than last year.

Granlund’s shooting percentage has indeed regressed, but only to 12%. Shooting percentage can be finicky, but it’s safe to say at this point that Granlund has definitely improved his shooting ability.

He’s also shooting more, which is enabling him to keep up the level of goal-scoring he showed last season. Granlund is averaging almost half a shot per-game more than he did last year, but a change in his approach is also helping him.

Granlund is using his hockey sense which allowed him to see passing plays few others can to find soft spots by the net. We can see an example of this back in December vs. Toronto. Look at he slips in between all those white jerseys unnoticed.

Another trick he’s been showing off lately is working as a net-front presence. While that’s a role usually reserved for players with size, Granlund demonstrates that you can use your vision and hand-eye coordination to get dangerous deflections. This proved successful in Winnipeg on Saturday night.

The great players in the league are constantly adding elements to their game in an effort to improve. Granlund doing just that has ensured he took a step forward when others would’ve taken a step back.

And of course, there’s still Granlund’s ability to make plays with regularity, which no one on the team can match. That’s only improved with his increased willingness to shoot. Defenders can no longer back off Granlund and play the pass, because if you leave him alone in the slot, he can beat goalies. That wasn’t the case two years ago.

Eric Staal was chosen as the Wild’s All-Star representative, but it’s hard to make an argument that Granlund hasn’t been Minnesota’s best player as of late. Granlund has been good for at least one jaw-dropping play per game, such as this game-saving assist against Chicago. Wait for the replay to see Granlund spring this two-on-one with a pass between his legs.

He’s also greatly improved his possession game. Minnesota gets 50.5% of the shot attempts with Granlund on the ice at 5-on-5. That doesn’t seem impressive on paper, but that’s second on the team right now, behind Possession Jesus Nino Niederreiter. Granlund is showing that he can swing momentum in Minnesota’s favor, even from a checking-line role.

His results stack up well against the rest of the league. Since the start of last season, Granlund’s 105 points puts him at 9th in scoring among right wingers, and 14th among all wingers. We’re talking in the same company as players like Jamie Benn (111), David Pastrnak (109), and Patrik Laine (101).

When you add the scoring, the defensive value, and the way he’s been able to take over games over the past year, you have a player who is delivering on that promise he showed so long ago, and proving that his breakout season was no fluke.

It’s given Minnesota something it’s been lacking since the days of Marian Gaborik: A dynamic player who is legitimately a Top-10 player at their position. With the Wild struggling as they have, Granlund’s star-caliber effort has kept them in the playoff race.

Luckily for the State of Hockey, it doesn’t look like he’s slowing down anytime soon.