Fantasy fans in every sport, no matter their level of dedication to their hobby, have blind spots. Certain teams or positional competitions just fly under the radar. After all, especially for the multi-sport fantasy player, you can’t follow everyone. As a fantasy hockey player, I’ll admit the Minnesota Wild have been kind of a black box for me. My impression of the Wild is as a team with solid depth and no stars. That is because I have slept mightily on how good Mikael Granlund is.
The 26-year old Finn has put up 69 and 67 points in the last two seasons. That sounds pretty good, but doesn’t jump off the page. If you dig a little deeper, there is more to the story.
Two years ago, the guy known to teammates and fans as “Granny” was in the midst of an underwhelming 44 point season during his fourth year with the Wild. In early 2016, Mike Yeo moved MK from center to Mikko Koivu’s right wing. Granlund’s scoring improved with the move (for example, 10 of his points came in the last 14 games of that season.) When Bruce Boudreau took over Minnesota in 2016-17, he recognized the value of this combo. Granlund stayed at right wing next to the defense-minded Koivu and across the ice from Jason Zucker.
Weirdly, Granlund’s offensive breakout came with this shift to a defensive role. Starting in 2016, Koivu, Zucker, and Granlund formed a formidable shutdown line. Corsica.hockey tracks the percentage of time a line starts in their own zone, as opposed to the offensive zone. In 2017-18, there were 25 lines in hockey that played together for 400 minutes or more. Among these, Koivu/Zucker/Granlund had the fourth-lowest percentage of starts in enemy territory — they lined up for faceoffs on offense only 41% of the time (once you exclude neutral zone starts). Despite poor odds, the line was highly effective at taking the puck down the ice and doing something with it. 55% of the goals scored while this defensive line was on ice went to the Wild. According to Emmanuel Perry’s expected goal measure (which looks beyond the shots that went in to the quality and location of the shots taken and their typical likelihood of going in), it should have been 64% — far and away the most in the NHL.
Other data reinforces the heavy load Granlund was expected to carry. Rob Vollman’s excellent Player Usage Charts (a version of which is available here) track the quality of competition faced by each player on a team. Koivu and Granlund faced tougher opponents by far than the other forwards on Minnesota. Heck, Granlund and Koivu was Minnesota’s most common forward pairing on the penalty kill all year, with Granlund averaging two minutes a game shorthanded.
So was Granlund just lucky to get such nice counting stats? He certainly got time on the power play, to the tune of 2.5 minutes per game. Only 19 of his 67 points came from that deployment, though, not an overwhelming proportion. He didn’t thrive off of an unsustainable shooting percentage. While 14.7% of Granlund’s 2016-17 shots lit the lamp, only 10.9% did last year. That number is pretty close to his career 10.1% mark. (Side note: he is a better shot at home by a margin of 13.9% to 7.6%.) He does score a lot with secondary assists. Corsica.hockey has 20 of his 67 points coming off the (less likely to stay consistent) secondaries. His shots have climbed three straight years, with 193 last year. For “bangers” leagues, his hits and blocks are curiously low for a defensive minded player, typically about 50 apiece.
If the breakout has already come, is there still room for more growth? I think there is potential based on linemates, role, and ice time.
This year, Michael Russo of the Athletic thinks Granlund and Zucker may switch to the first line with Staal predominantly. While no one wants to see a particularly effective line broken up, it may be that playing with last year’s 76-pointer Staal instead of 45-point Koivu would unlock more offense from Granlund. Natural Stat Trick has a feature to show you a player’s stats with and without a particular teammate on the ice. In the 5 on 5 minutes Granlund played without Koivu this year, his offensive zone start percentage increased from 42% to 48%. In February when Granlund was in the midst of a cold streak, Granlund moved to Staal’s line, which Boudreau admitted it was partly to reignite Granlund’s scoring. Perhaps a full season of the pairing would improve scoring even more.
The other remarkable thing about Granlund’s scoring last year is how he did it with relatively low ice time. Of 45 players with at least 60 points last year, Granlund rung up his total in the second-fewest minutes (1446 for his 67 points). Sean Couturier’s 79 points came in 1771 minutes, while Anze Kopitar led all top scorers in time on ice with 92 points in 1811 minutes. Granlund’s time share came out to 19 MPG over 77 games. Patrick Kane (in Chicago’s dismal season) scored 76 points in 1655 minutes. That comes out to less points per minute than Granlund — and Kane did that starting in the opponent’s zone a whopping 65.2% of the zone faceoffs. Increase Granlund’s ice time and who knows what might happen.
Hockey reference compares the statistical profiles of players based on their stats to find players from hockey history whose stat lines they most closely resemble. Three of the closest matches to Granny’s first six years are Travis Zajac, Henrik Sedin, and Doug Weight.
Certainly, I know a big season is no sure thing. Granlund is a bit old for a huge next step at 26, extra time on ice may or may not make him a more efficient scorer, and breaking up last year’s shutdown line (if Boudreau even sticks to it) might not improve performance over Granlund’s speed-based counter-punch. Anything can happen. Still, I’m taking a chance on Granlund wherever I can this year. He has precious dual eligibility at center and right wing. He continues to play on a good team. On my fantasy team, I’d feel very happy with him as my RW2, and if the draft falls the wrong way for me, would not panic with Granlund as my RW1.