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VOL. 43 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 22, 2019

Granlund finding his footing with Predators

By Chip Cirillo

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Zach Parise didn’t hesitate when asked what he will miss most about his former linemate, Mikael Granlund.

“The tap-ins that he gives,” says Parise, who is Minnesota’s leading scorer with 24 goals and 55 points. “He had that ability to give you some empty-netters.”

Granlund and three other forwards were traded to Nashville in February as general manager David Poile bolstered his roster for the upcoming playoffs.

“He’s a great passer, plays hard,” adds Parise, a left wing who was selected in 2003 when the NHL Draft was held in Nashville. “I liked playing with him a lot. He is a really good player and I think he’s going to do really well for these guys.”

The Predators also acquired Wayne Simmonds from Philadelphia, Brian Boyle from New Jersey and Cody McLeod from the New York Rangers.

Nashville got Granlund in exchange for winger Kevin Fiala, who scored twice in his first game in Nashville against his former team. But Parise says the Predators will appreciate Granlund’s playmaking abilities as time goes on.

“I think he’s one of the guys that if you asked individual players who they want to play with he’s probably the one guy that 95 percent of the forwards are going to say, ‘I want to play with him,’” Parise says. “I think he’s that good of a player.”

Granlund was traded while his fiancée, Emmi Kainulainen, went into labor Feb. 25. Their son, Milo, was born the next day and shares the same birthday as his 27-year-old father.

Granlund played his former team twice during his first week with the Predators: once in Saint Paul and once in Nashville. The Predators won both games in shootouts.

The Predators have gone 4-4 since the Feb. 25 trade.

“Yea, it’s been a pretty crazy week, but thank God everything went well,” Granlund says. “Now, I’m getting used to everything here, so it’s over now and we can move on and play hockey. I don’t think that kind of week is every going to come up again.”

Granlund, whose first seven years in the league were with Minnesota, has mixed feeling about the trade.

“I got drafted there, and everybody in the whole state of Minnesota has been really nice to me and my family,” Granlund explains. “It was a really good seven years and I have a lot of lifelong friends from there, and obviously I’m going to miss those guys, but now it’s a new chapter. I’m really excited about it and this team is really good, and there are a lot of good guys.”

With 16 goals and 37 assists, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Finn has a chance to reach the 20-goal mark for the third straight year. His career high came with 26 two years ago.

“He’s a courageous guy for his size,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau points out. “Plays all situations. He’s been the leading scorer in Minnesota for the last two years, so I think you’re getting a real good player.”

Granlund scored 67 points last season after registering 69 in 2016-17. He was drafted ninth overall in 2010.

“I think his offensive instincts speak for itself,” says Wild center Eric Staal, a former linemate who was the second overall pick by Carolina in the 2003 draft in Nashville. “He sees the ice really well and he’s a fun guy to play with because he can make plays. I think he’ll do well here in Nashville.”

Staal described him as a pass-first guy whose natural instinct is to look for a play rather than shoot. Granlund is a setup guy with 227 career assists, including a career-high 46 last season.

Sure enough, he recorded an assist in his Predators debut, a 5-3 loss at Winnipeg on March 1.

He helped lead Finland to a bronze medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics and Predators forward Miikka Salomaki was one of his teammates at the 2012 World Junior Championship.

“He’s done a lot of good things,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette says. “The power play’s been moving the puck a little bit better, generating a lot more pucks at the net, a lot more quality chances and hopefully some of those will drop. To me, that definitely has something to do with the new personnel that’s in there and giving them a little bit of confidence.”

Laviolette says the addition of Granlund, Simmonds and Boyle will help Nashville’s power play, which ranks 30th out of 31 teams (13 percent).

Granlund has been playing left wing on Nashville’s first and second lines. Boudreau told The St. Paul Pioneer Press he’s a natural center who played there his whole life until he turned pro.

“He’s a tremendous playmaker,” notes Wild left winger Jason Zucker, another former linemate. “The way he sees the ice and the plays he thinks about making are second to none, so it’s fun to see.”

The Predators acquired Simmonds three minutes before the trade deadline for right winger Ryan Hartman and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2020. If Nashville wins a playoff round this season, it becomes a third-round selection.

That reunited Simmonds with Laviolette, who coached him on the Flyers from 2011-13.

“I thoroughly enjoyed playing for Lavi my first time around in Philadelphia,” Simmonds says. “It’s been great so far. Hopefully, everything just works.”

Simmonds, one of the NHL’s premier power forwards, was a popular player in Philadelphia with his physical play. The 6-2, 185-pound right winger has 16 goals and 12 assists this season.

“He was terrific in Philadelphia, he’s terrific here,” Laviolette adds. “He brings a lot to the table: experience, a veteran leader, toughness, size, he’s got an incredible knack around the net.”

Simmonds has been playing on the second and third lines. A six-time 20-goal scorer, the “Wayne Train” earned his first point with Nashville on an assist in a win over Minnesota on March 3.

Simmonds was in 41 fights with the Flyers and had 784 penalty minutes, but was never suspended.

The Predators got Boyle (6-foot-6, 245) Feb. 6 in exchange for a second-round pick in this year’s draft.

“He’s been terrific for all the different reasons: his size, his physicality, his net-front presence,” Laviolette explains. “We’ve scored three goals – a couple power-play goals and a goalie pulled/extra-attacker goals – with him playing in front of the net.”

The left winger has been playing on played on the fourth line.

“I love our team,” Boyle says. “We always had a hard time playing against the Predators. I think all four of us got moved to a situation where our team is in a better position in the standings. We want to, obviously, all contribute to try to keep this thing going.”

A cancer survivor, Boyle scored his first career hat trick in a win over Pittsburgh on “Hockey Fights Cancer” night Nov. 5, 2018. Earlier in his career, he made it to the Stanley Cup Finals with the Rangers in 2014 and Tampa Bay in 2015.

Nashville acquired McLeod (6-foot-2, 245) on the same day as Boyle in exchange for a seventh-round pick in the 2020 draft.

McLeod, 34, hasn’t gotten to play much, but is considered a valuable leader in the room.

Predators captain Roman Josi says the new additions have given Nashville a big lift.

“Boyler, Simmer, Granny – those guys all have been great on the power play so far,” Josi adds. “They helped on five on five, too.”

Boyle, Simmonds and McLeod add much-needed size to the lineup for the playoffs, especially if Nashville gets a rematch with a bigger Winnipeg team in the second round.

“The style of play always changes a little bit going into the playoffs and I feel like that’s going to help us,” Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne says. “I think size up front, that’s going to help us. Obviously, it’s not going to be fights and things like that, but it’s a physical game and the physicality is going to increase going into playoffs. I think that’s going to be an advantage for us. There are a lot of physical teams like Winnipeg and St. Louis from the West.”

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