Thursday, September 05, 2013

Exciting Finnish – Getting to Know Markus Granlund

Markus Granlund says his favourite player growing up was Saku Koivu. With 17 NHL seasons in the books and over 800 points, not a bad choice.

It’s also an appropriate choice considering that in many ways, Granlund is cut out of the same mould. At 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, he is similar in stature to Koivu. Granlund is also a strong, play-making centre who can score, just like his idol.

Back in July, centring a line with Sven Baertschi and Coda Gordon in the Flames development camp scrimmages, Granlund – who speaks limited English, let his play on the ice do all the talking and did it ever speak volumes. He drew praise from Baertschi who had nothing but good things to say about Granlund’s dynamic game

“What they learn in Finland is you always have your head up. It doesn’t matter if the puck is on your stick or not, your head is always up. As soon as the puck touches his blade, he doesn’t look for the puck any more because he knows it’s there, he can feel it," Baertschi said at the time. "So when you play with him, he always sees you because his head is always up. You don’t have to yell at him because he sees you already. He makes good plays out there and he can also shoot the puck, he has a really accurate shot."

Hearing from the Man, Himself

After Granlund finished his fitness testing Wednesday at the University of Calgary, I had a chance to chat with the quiet-spoken 20-year-old. Using countryman Joni Ortio as his translator in the handful of instances when he couldn’t come up with the right words, he talked about his overall game, his time in Finland, and his expectations going forward with the Penticton Young Stars Classic tournament coming up and the Flames main training camp after that.

Granlund played the past two seasons in the Finnish Elite League for HIFK Helsinki. Last year, 19 years old and the youngest player on a veteran team, Granlund established himself as one of the team’s go-to players. He finished second on the team in scoring with 10 goals and 20 assists in 50 games.

“It was a huge thing for me as a young player to be put in that kind of role at such a young age,” said Granlund, who notched 15 goals and 19 assists in his rookie year. “It’s nice to get that responsibility so early on.”

Mixed in was a superb showing at the 2013 World Juniors where he tied for the Finnish team scoring lead and was second overall in tournament scoring with five goals and seven assists in six games.

Ortio, who is two years older than Granlund, offers a unique perspective on Granlund’s 2012-13 campaign given he had the best vantage point of anybody – a view from ice level.  Ortio, also a Flames prospect, was Helsinki’s starting goaltender last year.

“At times, he was our No. 1 centre. Just to be in that spot and face all that pressure you have playing in that spot, that builds character and makes you ready for the next step which is here, right now,” said Ortio. “So it was great for him to see that much ice time and the role he was playing and for him to pull it off perfectly.”

Ortio says Markus Granlund is a very similar player to his talented brother Mikael, who is one year older and was drafted ninth overall by Minnesota in 2010. Mikael played 27 games last year as a rookie with the Wild.

All Finnish, No Swedish

“Yes, I am a playmaker, but I can score goals too,” insists Granlund, when asked to describe his overall game. An area he’s already notably good at but continues to work on is the quick release of his wrist shot.

“If you shoot, you have to shoot quick because you don’t have much time over here,” said Granlund, who signed a three-year entry level contract in April. “In North America, everything on the ice you have to do a little bit more quicker than back home. Obviously with the smaller rink, there’s not as much as space on the ice to make plays.”

Ortio said fans will enjoy watching Granlund as he is an exciting player.

“He’s the guy that can set up plays you wouldn’t even dream about. At times last year, he’d make a play on the ice and I’d be like ‘wow, I didn’t see that coming’. He’s just so intelligent. He knows exactly where his linemates are at all times.”

Then there’s this gem from two years ago:

Would Granlund like to have Baertschi as one of his linemates again in Penticton?

“Of course, he’s a good player. But I don’t care who I play with, it doesn’t matter,” Granlund said. “I just want to do my best every day and try to make my linemates better.”

New and Improved Markus

Since being drafted by the Flames in the second round of 2011, 45th overall, three areas that Granlund says he’s been working on has been his power, his skating, and his “muscle”, pointing out that a big difference for him is players in North America are so much stronger.

During a recent interview on Sportsnet 960 radio, Flames GM Jay Feaster said he’s looking forward to seeing how Granlund fares in his first taste of pre-season hockey.

"If there is one guy I really am anxious to see, it would have to be Markus Granlund. When you look at what he did this past season over in Europe and I thought he was one of the most pleasant surprises of development camp,” Feaster said. “He's a wildcard in my mind and he's someone I'm anxious to see when he's up against the top guys on these other teams and teams that are our rivals.”

Like each and every prospect, Granlund hopes to be pulling on a Calgary Flames jersey a month from now. But if that doesn’t happen, he says he’ll go down to Abbotsford and continue to work.

“If that's the case, you can’t just keep thinking about oh no, now I’m in Abbotsford, I have no chance to get back up. There’s always possibilities if you do your best.” Granlund said.

Wherever he ends up in 2013-14, perhaps Ortio will be right there alongside him. At minimum, the two of them will be sticking together for September.

“For sure it’s nice to have a guy around that speaks the same language,” Ortio said. “I don’t have any problems with English but it’s nice to chat with your own native tongue every once and a while and I bet it’s a huge help for him. I was here a few years ago and know the deal and I hope I can help him out the best way I can."

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