If you followed last season's Top 25 Under 25, you'll likely remember that the #1 ranked player was Mikael Granlund.
This wasn't an easy decision make. With the way that the rankings turned out, Granlund, Jared Spurgeon, and Nino Niederreiter were tied for the #1 spot. But someone had to be #1. So we split hairs, and I ended up being the deciding factor in making Granlund #1, citing that he probably had the most upside.
I've felt pretty foolish since.
In a season where I felt that Granlund could be primed for a breakout, he flopped. And worse, he flopped in what was literally the best situation possible for him to succeed. He was constantly playing in the offensive zone. He played alongside Zach Parise and Jason Pominville for the majority of the year. He even got a hair over two minutes of power play time a game. In that perfect situation, Granlund managed to score only 39 points in 68 games, after scoring 41 in 63 the previous season. Any way you dissect it, the conclusion is clear: Granlund took a step back.
This begs the question: What happened?
After being selected with the 9th pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, Granlund's stock as a prospect rose meteorically. In his age 18 and 19 seasons, he was a point-per-game player. And this wasn't in, say, the QMJHL, this was against men in Finland's top league. He combined his regular season greatness with impressive showings in tournaments, culminating in him scoring 9 points in 9 games to help Finland win the World Championships (again, not Juniors, this was also against men) in 2011. Then he came to North America, and put up point-per-game numbers in the AHL, which was loaded with top talent due to the NHL being locked out.
I say all this to assure you that your disappointment in Granlund isn't the product of the Wild overhyping him. He was a legitimate top prospect that destroyed older competition wherever he went. His game just hasn't translated to the NHL yet. But why?
It's not due to a lack of skills. Granlund is a very gifted passer, with great vision and puck-handling ability. It's no coincidence that Pominville lit it up in 2013-14, nor is it a coincidence that Parise enjoyed his best goal-scoring season in a Wild sweater last season. Both of them benefitted from being alongside Granlund.
And when Granlund puts all of his offensive skills together, magic happens. We all remember this OT goal against the Avalanche in the 2014 playoffs.
It's in this clip that we see the missing ingredients to Granlund's success.
The first is aggression. In a pressure-packed situation where Granlund was playing with 30-goal scorers in Parise and Pominville, Granlund found a small opening and took matters into his own hands. Too often, we've seen Granlund defer to his linemates. Understandable, because he's a young NHL playmaker skating alongside proven goal scorers. There's a lot of factors in that sentence that might make him feel pressure to pass instead of shoot.
But Granlund's been at his most successful when he's shot, and shot often. When Granlund had a strong finish to his 2013-14 NHL season, his 5v5 Shots per 60 was 7.47, much higher than his career average. During his impressive 2014 postseason, that lept to 8.96. In the 2014 Winter Olympics, Granlund racked up points next to Teemu Selanne, but it wasn't because he was deferring. He was tied for 5th in the tournament with 20 shots. Only Alex Ovechkin, Alex Steen, Jeff Carter, and Phil Kessel fired the puck more.
The trend is clear. When Granlund shoots more, it forces opposing teams to account for him, and it frees up space for him to more effectively create offense for either himself or his teammates.
The second thing Granlund puts on display in the best seven seconds of his career is his elusiveness. He's able to evade the 6'4" Jan Hejda, jet to a soft spot near the crease, and put the puck in the net, all without any opponent making meaningful contact with him.
This is something that the Wild need to see more from Granlund. Too often, Granlund takes an unnecessary amount of punishment on the ice, which has led to a checkered injury history from the smaller center. Granlund missed stretches of time with two concussions in the 2013-14 season, and while Granlund's head avoided the elbows and shoulders of opponents last year, he suffered a broken wrist at the hand of Dustin Byfuglien.
When you watch this hit, you'll see Granlund landing on the ice head-first- he was lucky to just have broken his wrist.
It's good to see that Granlund has competitiveness to his game, and that he's not afraid of physical contact. But a player as lauded for his vision as he is can not be opening himself to the contact that he takes. What was the upside to fighting through that check? Granlund needs to be able to quickly assess the risk and reward of taking contact and pick his spots in the physical side of the game.
Granlund is still only 23 years old, but with the Wild facing tough salary cap decisions on the horizon, this will be a big year for him. If he makes the adjustments to become a prolific offensive center, the Wild are going to make it a priority to give him the long-term, big-money deal he desires. If he continues to be passive offensively, or gets injured because he's still prone to taking hard contact too frequently, he could find himself in a different organization by this time next year.