The clock is ticking in a lot of ways for Calgary Flames forward Markus Granlund.
The 2011 draft pick is in the third and final season of his entry-level contract, after which he’ll be a restricted free agent. And once his deal expires this season, he’ll be subject to waivers. More urgently, the recovery of Michael Frolik’s shoulder in a few weeks means that somebody has to head to the American Hockey League’s Stockton Heat to free up a roster spot for the Czech veteran. The most obvious candidate is the still-waiver-exempt Granlund.
But after splitting time between the big-time and the minor leagues over the past three seasons – including 85 appearances for Calgary’s AHL affiliates in Abbotsford, Adirondack and Stockton – you get the impression from listening to Granlund’s coach that he might not be going anywhere else quite yet.
“I think in his mind there’s a huge change [from previous recalls]. He feels that he’s a regular
NHL player,” said Hartley of Granlund’s demeanor following Calgary’s 5-3 win over Edmonton. “And
that’s always the danger with players that what I call kind of stuck
between the American Hockey League and the National Hockey League, after
a few call-ups sometimes you kind of start wondering if you’re an
American League player or a National Hockey League player, and there’s
always a danger. Brad sat with Granny, I sat with Granny [after training camp], and we told
him ‘You dictate where you’re going to be,’ and obviously he’s talking
on the ice to us and he’s playing great. I have lots of confidence in
Granny. He’s playing great. Offensively he’s generating. Defensively
he’s a very strong centerman, very smart, so he’s a big part of our
Of all the players in the organization aren’t yet NHL regulars, you can make a case that Granlund is the guy that’s made the best case for a full-time gig – with Derek Grant probably being the other guy in that race. You can also make a strong case that he’s been given the most chances to prove himself, as he’s currently on the ninth recall of his young pro career. The 22-year-old Finnish product’s NHL career can be characterized thusly: he’s circled the airport a few times, but he hasn’t quite landed yet.
“When you go up and down, mentally it’s hard. But every time when I come here I want to do my best and be on this team,” said Granlund prior to Sunday’s game with Edmonton. “Every time when I’m here I’m thinking ‘this is my spot.’ I know I can play here, and I don’t want to think about that this is my last year of contract. Of course I know it and I know it’s a big opportunity to be here and play and do my best.”
For whatever it’s worth, the Flames seem to be doing their damnedest to give Granlund a chance to succeed. While his face-off numbers are still not amazing – he’s won 38.5% of his draws in the NHL this season – he’s been playing an offensively-skewed role alongside Sam Bennett and a rotating cast of right-wingers (compared to Mikael Backlund’s line, which seems to be getting the scraps), while in previous recalls he’s primarily received third and fourth line duties. And when Hartley waxes poetic about the importance of the young players on his team’s roster, he includes Granlund in with the Gaudreau/Monahan/Bennett/Hamilton grouping. That may be just an age-category thing, but Hartley’s utilization of the player – offensive zone starts, good linemates and zero press-box time on this recall – makes me think he’s serious about teaching him the NHL game.
When Granlund’s getting more reps at center than Bennett is, it seems like an indication that the team really wants to utilize him at that position rather than use him as a tool to develop the more highly-touted Bennett there instead. But with the Flames carrying roughly seven players that can play up the middle – almost all of whom are better at winning draws than Granlund has been – the clock may be ticking on his chance to earn a full-time NHL job. However, Granlund shared that there haven’t been any conversations with him as of yet in regards to converting him to a winger, and his usage on this recall seems to indicate that the team has designs to use him as a center.
While Granlund has yet to reach the lofty heights of fellow 2011 draft pick Johnny Gaudreau, he’s established himself as a really strong AHL player and seems to be well on his way to cementing himself as a full-time NHL player. That’s not just good news for Granlund, but also for the Flames from an asset management perspective; if he ends up getting sent back to Stockton it might be a challenge to give him a tenth recall given there’s not much left to learn about him as an NHLer after nine trips up.
Not every prospect is ready for the NHL right away. But aside from his face-offs, Granlund looks on the ice (and carries himself off the ice) like an everyday NHLer. If he can figure out faceoffs, he could be a very valuable depth player for the Flames going forward.