Stop if this sounds familiar: a highly-touted playmaker from Europe is finally ready to make the jump to North America, two years after being drafted in the first round. His destination? Minnesota, and a team that's struggled to compete in recent years.
If you think the athlete in question is Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio, sorry, but that's not the right answer here. The Minnesota Wild announced on Wednesday that Mikael Granlund, the team's first-round pick (ninth overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, has signed with the team and is expected to make his NHL debut in the 2012-13 season.
The 20-year-old native of Oulu, Finland, just finished his third season with HIFK Helsinki of the SM-liiga, the top hockey league in Finland. He led the team in points with 51, scoring 20 goals and handing out 31 assists. He also played 10 games for the Finnish national team that finished fourth at the 2012 IIHF World Championship, scoring one goal and recording four assists. In three years with Helsinki -including a championship run in 2010-11 - Granlund has 41 goals and 86 assists in 127 games, averaging a point per game over his three-year tenure with the team.
The Wild made moves on Wednesday to trumpet Granlund's arrival as a major event for the team, which finished fourth in the Northwest Division this past season at 35-36-11. According to a report on Twitter by Wild beat writer Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (@Russostrib), the first 64 fans to purchase Wild season tickets for the 2012-13 campaign will receive an autographed Gralund jersey (the Finnish star will wear No. 64 with the Wild, as he has with HIFK Helsinki and the Finnish national team), and jerseys are already on sale at the team store. Team general manager Chuck Fletcher told Russo that he expects Granlund to play for the club in 2012-13 and be a contributor.
The Wild can certainly use the help. The 2011-12 season saw Minnesota start with high expectations, but end up missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Located in what should be a prime hockey market, the Wild have made the playoffs just three times since beginning play as an expansion team in the 2000-01 season, advancing past the first round just once. There's hope in Minnesota that Granlund's arrival will start a new era at the Xcel Energy Center, where the team's performance on the ice matches the population's puck passion.
Rubio, of course, didn't help his Minnesota team make the playoffs in his rookie season, but he was a sensation, leading all rookies in assists, finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting and helping the Timberwolves win nine more games than in 2010-11 despite the lockout-shortened schedule.
One year later, Minnesota is ready for another European import.