The Wild decided not to wait for the draft to add a still fairly young and talented player by signing the top scorer from the Finnish Sm-Liiga this season in Ilves Tampere’s Michael Keranen to a 1-year two-way contract. Keranen was considered one of the top European players not playing in the NHL; and he had a number of teams vying for his services. Every year, the top European players that were not drafted are often sought-after free agents and sometimes these players shine (i.e. Damien Brunner, Johan Hedberg), but most do not live up to the hype (Fabian Brunnstrom, Jiri Dopita and Michael Cervenka). Keranen, a 6’1″, 176lbs forward who can dangle, possesses good speed and can score without being a defensive liability had 17 goals, 52 points, and 47 PIM’s in 52 games this season for Ilves. Michael (pronounced Mihk-hiel) Keranen is a late bloomer who is only 24 years old.
The one-year deal will mean his learning / adjustment curve will have to be short. At 176lbs, he might have a hard time with the more physical nature of the North American game. I hope he has the chance to talk with Mikael Granlund, to talk about what he needs to do to prepare himself for that adjustment to the smaller North American ice and the faster pace of play. An intense summer workout session will certainly be in order to add muscle to his slight frame. Yet, Keranen has the ability to slide off checks and elude contact with his array of 1-on-1 moves and he’ll need them whether he’s playing with Minnesota or Iowa next season. Keranen is a terrific playmaker, who has great on-ice vision to anticipate the right moment when to dish the puck for a linemate who will be in prime scoring position. His addition adds another young, skilled forward to a team that has been steadily accumulating them the last few years via the draft and trade. Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, and Nino Niederreiter are all under the age of 25 and supremely skilled forwards who bring speed and offensive ability.
As Hockey Buzz‘s Tony Dean said here, the best part about Keranen’s addition to the Wild was that it really did not squander any other assets beyond a professional contract. No draft picks, no other players’ swapped. Its another sign of how the Wild under the leadership of General Manager Chuck Fletcher and Assistant GM Brent Flahr have continued to strengthen the organization in a wide variety of ways. They have been aggressive in seeking out college free agents, something ex-Wild GM Doug Risebrough never did. Even if those players don’t quite deliver as well as hoped as was the case of Casey Wellman, at least the team tried. The team added U-Mass-Lowell defenseman Christian Folin, who played his junior hockey in the NAHL with the Austin (MN) Bruins. Folin is a 6’3″ two-way defenseman who has terrific potential, and now Keranen who provides tremendous offensive skill but is also responsible defensively. Noticing a trend?
Even if Keranen can’t help Minnesota; hopefully he can be a leader and go-to source of scoring creativity for the Iowa Wild. Iowa finished dead last in the AHL in scoring. Ignoring Brad Winchester whom the team traded for, who had most of his points from his time with Rockford, the leading scorer for Iowa was Zack Phillips with a scant 12 goals and 33 points in 76 games. That simply isn’t going to get it done and there were long periods where Iowa simply couldn’t seem to buy a goal of any kind. The other players who were to provide the Wild with offense either got hurt (Brett Bulmer, Kris Foucault, Jason Zucker) or never really materialized (Jake Dowell, Warren Peters). So at the very least, Keranen can try to provide an offensive spark for a club that will again probably be hard-pressed to find goals. The Wild also added overage junior players in Brady Brassart and Zack Mitchell to help provide some more scoring punch up front too to go along with Kurtis Gabriel who impressed in his late season stint as well as big 6’5″ skilled center Tyler Graovac.
The team decided not to tender a contract towards skilled defenseman Daniel Gunnarsson who had signed a deal to remain playing in Sweden. He looked promising at Wild development camp, but perhaps with the signing of Folin felt he saw the writing on the wall and figured the team moved on without him. Yet will he be the only player the Wild decide to pass on?
With Keranen’s signing does that make Justin Fontaine‘s return a little less likely? Fontaine provided quality minutes playing mostly on the 3rd line, using his creativity and decent play along the boards to be quite pesky on the forecheck. Perhaps out of all the Wild’s players I felt that Fontaine often provided the best puck support which is a key part of both eluding the opposing forecheck and sustaining your own. Fontaine has proven he can produce at the AHL level and demonstrated he can help provide secondary scoring at the NHL level. While I think its smart to keep your options open, I hope Keranen isn’t seen as his replacement. Here is a little highlight film of Keranen to enjoy.