A punch to the gut, embarrassment and disappointment. Those might be the feelings coming away from the results of both the men's and women's Olympic Hockey teams in Sochi. The American women teased fans back in the U.S. by jumping out to a 2-0 lead which had Canada on its heels but in the 3rd period they decided to simply defend their lead and they counter attacked and one shot off the post while the Canadians had pulled their goalie and the rest is history. Canada gets the gold, the American women again have to settle for the silver. Then there is the disappointing saga of the men's team who surprised many by winning their preliminary group with a dramatic shootout victory over tournament host Russia only to fall 1-0 to arch-rival Canada in the semi-final. Their failure was made complete with 5-0 thrashing against Finland. The effort for the Americans was largely uninspired and was a sad ending to a promising start. However, the Olympics and the break in the NHL season it provided was not all gloom for the Minnesota Wild.
For two Finns, Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula the Olympics and the NHL break was a real time to shine. Both players took on expanded roles with their respective teams giving them both an offensive boost. With the compacted schedule and the Wild very much in the midst of a run towards the post-season the team needs to get out to a positive start. So why should these two players be allowed to play expanded roles for the Wild when the NHL season resumes for the Wild this Thursday?
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A little while ago I wrote an article about whether or not the Wild would be better off without Mikko Koivu. The article was less provacative than the title and the main premise was discussing why it would be smart to separate the team's captain from Zach Parise to quite possibly get more out of both players. My suggested replacement is hardly a revelation, but the strong performance in the Olympics should provide further proof that Mikael Granlund should center the top line. How good was he? Good enough to make the Olympics All Star Team joining the likes of fellow countryman Teemu Selanne and Phil Kessel along with defenseman Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty as well as goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. That's pretty impressive company and should be the kind of endorsement Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo cannot ignore and keep Granlund anchoring the top line. Koivu's health is still a bit uncertain and I do not think there is a reason to rush him back before he's completely healthy. Granlund led Finland in scoring with 3 goals 7 points in 6 games as well as in shots with 20.
As I stated before, Granlund had performed well with Parise just prior to leaving for Sochi. Granlund's return would likely be a good thing for Jason Pominville as well and he too thrived with the Finnish sophomore as center. The statistics bear that out.
Granlund, Parise & Pominville on the top line (7 games)
Win %: 57% (4 for 3)
Goals: 8 goals
Assists: 15 assists
The switch would also allow Koivu to be eased into the lineup and if he can develop any chemistry with Dany Heatley who started to show signs of life to his game having scored 2 goals and 4 assists in the last 7 games before the break. Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle could possibly be the other winger on the 2nd line. It should be a reasonable 2nd line and a line that could be very difficult to handle down low in the offensive zone.
Another player who deserves to be in the Wild lineup when play resumes on Thursday is Erik Haula. Unlike the rest of the Wild, he would be dispatched to play for the team's AHL affiliate in Iowa where he quickly asserted himself as the team's most dangerous offensive player. Haula has mainly recieved 4th line minutes for Minnesota, but perhaps he's worthy of an audition on other lines after scoring 6 goals, 5 assists in 7 games with Iowa during the Olympic break. In fact I am sure Iowa Wild head coach Kurt Kleinendorst will be hard pressed to replace Haula's creativity and goal scoring on a team where goals are so hard to come by.
Haula's status makes him easy to send down as he doesn't have to pass through waivers like other Wild players would. However, it would be shortsighted of the Wild to dismiss Haula since he has the skills to fit in just about any line. His inclusion may come at the cost of dressing a player who provides more toughness, but I think his speed also makes opponents think twice about dressing an enforcer of their own. Haula has been solid on the penalty kill and I think his strong play warrants him being placed somewhere on Minnesota's lineup on Thursday.
As teams approach the trade deadline, which is next week Wednesday on March 5th, Haula's name might be in that mix along with currently injured winger Jason Zucker. The next few days could certainly be interesting for the Wild, but as Mike Yeo is quick to ride the hot hand between the pipes hopefully he's equally inclined to do the same with Granlund and Haula.