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The 2013-14 season has been a terrific reflection on Abbotsford Heat centre Markus Granlund – he leads the team in goals and points, and paces all AHL rookies in goals as well.
Clint Trahan / Abbotsford Heat

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Competitiveness, consistency fuel Granlund's rise

Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward, quizzed as to what improvements his star pupil Markus Granlund might need to make in order to nail down full-time NHL employment, takes the question in a different direction.

All Granlund really needs, in Ward's opinion, is a chance at the NHL level.

"Nothing more, nothing less," he asserted.

"He needs a chance, and he needs experience. And how can you get experience until you get a chance? And then I think all those things will fall into place."

Indeed, based on his remarkably consistent and prodigious offensive production in his first season in North America, the 20-year-old centre from Oulu, Finland appears ready to step in as soon as the NHL parent Calgary Flames have an opening.

Through 47 games, Granlund leads the Heat in goals (23) and points (42), and he's already shattered the team's rookie points record of 34, previously shared by T.J. Brodie (2010-11) and Dustin Sylvester (2011-12). He's tied for the team lead with eight power-play goals, but his +9 rating suggests he's also effective at even strength.

Granlund is third in points among rookies and 13th overall in the league, and he's tops among AHL freshmen in goals. He also leads the circuit in shootout game-winners with three.

The Flames' second-round selection in the 2011 NHL entry draft has been particularly hot of late, racking up seven goals and seven assists over the last nine games. He's had six multi-point outings during that span, and failed to register a point in just one game.

"Of course, it's surprised me a little bit," Granlund said, reflecting on his smashing debut on this side of the pond. "But I knew that I can play here and that I can be a good player."

Granlund's instant success is less of an eyebrow-raiser in light of the fact he spent the past two seasons playing against men with HIFK Helsinki in Finland's SM-liiga, where he was second in team scoring in 2012-13 with 10 goals and 20 assists in 50 games.

The rap on Granlund as a young prospect was his foot speed, but he hasn't struggled in the least to keep up to the pace of play in the AHL – in fact, he's dictating it.

"I've never seen his foot speed as an issue," Ward noted. "It just doesn't behoove you to listen to a scouting report or listen to anything until you get somebody and you're with them every day."

Granlund's rapid development has received crucial assists from teammates Joni Ortio and Max Reinhart.

Ortio, a goalie from Finland who is having a tremendous season in his own right, has helped his countryman (and former HIFK Helsinki teammate) adjust to North American culture off the ice. Granlund's English was rudimentary when he arrived last fall, but he's much more comfortable conversing now, and it's noticeable in his interactions with media.

"That was the biggest thing (in transitioning to North America) – English and everything like that," he said. "But I think Ortio helped me a lot. Now I know what's going on, and I'm even more comfortable."

Granlund has forged a terrific chemistry with Reinhart, who has been on his left wing for over a month now. They've been joined in recent weeks by veteran sniper Blair Jones on the right.

"He (Reinhart) is a good player, and we think about the game the same," Granlund analyzed. "We try to find each other, and we can both score and pass the puck. It's fun to play with those guys."

Granlund's brother Mikael, one year older, is already a full-time NHLer at this point. The ninth overall pick in the 2010 draft split last season between the AHL's Houston Aeros and the Minnesota Wild, and he's established himself with the Wild this season, registering five goals and 23 assists in 46 games.

Mikael is currently playing at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and he's been a fixture on Finland's top line with Teemu Selanne. On Wednesday, he notched a goal and an assist as Finland knocked host nation Russia out of the tourney with a 3-1 quarter-final win.

Markus said he and his older brother generally chat two or three times a week during the season, and he's enjoyed watching him play in Sochi.

"I'm mad because Canada beat Finland," he said with a wry chuckle, referencing his nation's 2-1 overtime defeat on Sunday. "But it's fun to watch."

The same could be said of Granlund himself – his high-end skill has been readily apparent.

But Ward has been most impressed with the centre's tremendous competitiveness.

"He's just a really competitive dude," Ward said. "He doesn't go off the rails like other young players, and he doesn't have outside focuses like other players. You put all those things together over a period of time, and you get a lot of consistency.

"A lot of rookies are just young kids that are, just being truthful, into a lot of stuff that they shouldn't be into. Their focus is friends and their focus is tweeting, playing video games – stuff that he (Granlund) quite frankly just doesn't have over here. He's just a hard-working guy who doesn't know a lot of people – he just keeps his nose to the grindstone and he wants to improve.

"He's more competitive than most of our rookies, almost more than any rookie, from Sven (Baertschi) on down. He just doesn't have a lot of other things that interfere with his development."

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