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Updated: February 24th, 2014 7:10pm
Zulgad: Mikael Granlund should replace Mikko Koivu as top-line center

Zulgad: Mikael Granlund should replace Mikko Koivu as top-line center

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The Minnesota Wild and Mikko Koivu came to a common-sense decision this month when it was announced the center wouldn't play for Finland in the Winter Olympics so he could continue to rehab his surgically repaired right ankle.

What Wild officials couldn't have realized, however, was that the decision would enable coach Mike Yeo to be able to see once and for all that he has a new No. 1 center.

Mikael Granlund, who replaced Koivu on the top line for Bronze-medal winning Finland, now should be asked to do the same in Minnesota on a full-time basis.

After shuttling between the Wild and Houston of the AHL in a disappointing first season in North America, Granlund has five goals and 23 assists in 46 games for the Wild this season.

He entered the Olympic break having looked far more comfortable with the NHL game and having displayed flashes of why scouts were convinced he was a can't-miss prospect.

But Granlund's progress went into hyper-speed in Sochi as the 21-year-old showed why he should remain above Koivu on the Wild's depth chart, even after the latter is ready to return.

With Koivu and Valtteri Filppula (fractured ankle) out, Granlund was a star for Finland. He earned a place on the tournament all-star team, leading Finland in scoring with seven points (three goals) in six games and averaging more than 18 minutes a game. Granlund's performance was a big reason one of his wingers, 43-year-old Teemu Selanne, earned tournament MVP honors.

Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher might have held his breath every time winger Zach Parise or defenseman Ryan Suter took a shift for the U.S. team, but he had to be overjoyed seeing the experience and confidence Granlund was able to gain.

Yeo, like so many coaches, loves to juggle his lines like a mad scientist, convinced he eventually will find the perfect combinations. But there have been two things Yeo has been reluctant to do. The first has been to take Koivu off the top line and the other has been to separate Koivu and Parise.

This has been puzzling given the fact that Koivu's ability as a two-way center makes him an ideal fit for second-line duty. Koivu, who is third on the Wild with 35 points this season in 44 games, isn't flashy but he is reliable. There have been multiple games where it has been easy to second-guess Yeo and wonder if he wouldn't be better served to try someone else at center with Parise.

The glimpses that we received of the high-flying Granlund and Parise playing together during Koivu's absence only helped to build a case that these two might be a very good fit.

If Yeo really wants to put his top firepower together on one line, his smart play would be to pair Granlund, Parise and leading-scorer Jason Pominville together when the Wild returns from the Olympic break on Thursday night in Edmonton. And then leave them together for multiple games.

It remains uncertain if Koivu will be able to return Thursday, but even if he does come back, there is no reason he couldn't center a second line that would feature another outstanding young talent in Charlie Coyle on one of the wings.

Would this hurt Koivu's feelings? The Wild can't afford to worry about that. Koivu is the captain of this team and this would be no time for him to put his personal feelings above the team.

The Wild has 69 points in 59 games and right now holds the top wild-card spot in the Western Conference. That puts Minnesota only five points from being out of a playoff spot.

It's a safe bet that with Granlund's confidence at an all-time high his presence as the Wild's top center would be a good first step toward keeping his team's playoff hopes alive and well.

Yeo and Koivu have to know this and, thus, they must know that having Koivu on the second line when he returns is the easy, and obvious, decision.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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