Mikael Granlund has heard the comparison before.
The "Sidney Crosby of Finland" is a tag loosely thrown around his home nation, and the 17-year-old forward is appropriately flattered. But on Canadian soil, and speaking to a Canadian reporter, the No.1 centre on the Finnish world junior entry wasn't about to take it too far, stressing that the comparison is premature and presumptuous.
"It's great when people say that I am like Sidney Crosby, but my reaction is 'Whoa,'" he said yesterday before a 2-0 loss to Russia at Regina's Brandt Centre last night. "I'm not Sidney Crosby, but maybe in the future I can be a pro player." That much seems certain.
Granlund, a 5-foot-10 jitterbug with scintillating puck skills, is expected to be a top 10 selection in the 2010 NHL entry draft, and he could improve his stock with a strong world junior tournament. He is already a point-per-game player in Finland's top league, but the comparison to Crosby needs explanation.
It is less about the Pittsburgh Penguins captain than it is about Finland's failure to produce elite-level NHL skaters.
The country of 5.3 million is known for exemplary goaltenders - Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff, Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom, Nashville's Pekka Rinne, etc. - and it is a per-capita hockey hotbed. But it hasn't produced a skater selected in the top 10 of the NHL entry draft since defenceman Joni Pitkanen in 2002, and up front, you have to go back to 2001, when Mikko Koivu and Tuomo Ruutu were selected sixth and ninth, respectively, overall.
Head coach Hannu Jortikka, a former player and professional coach in Finland's top league, said young Finnish players "all want to be goalies" when they first hit the ice, and that his country's identification with that position has hurt the development of skaters. But Granlund never fancied the crease, and he doesn't exactly play a classic Finnish game either.
"He's the best player in Finland for sure," Jortikka said. "He can move the puck, and his passing is a step ahead. He thinks so much." Internationally, the Finns are well-known for playing to their strengths. They have world-class goaltenders and solid defencemen, so they play a cautious style, unwilling to take many chances against run-and-gun opponents such as Canada and Russia. Granlund is a puck-possession player who combines brains and instincts, something closer to Teemu Selanne than Sami Pahlsson. Jortikka said the Oulu native is always a step ahead of the play, and anticipates where the puck should be moved.
"That's my game," Granlund said. "I'm not a power forward or something like that. I try and do my best with the puck." Granlund is playing in his second world junior tournament, but says he never tries to impress scouts and doesn't feel any pressure to be his country's next superstar. He had three points in six games as a 16-year-old in Ottawa last year, and currently centres Finland's top line between a pair of Edmonton Oilers draft picks, wingers Teemu Hartikainen and Toni Rajala. He has also been slowed by a groin injury that kept him off the ice in November, and Jortikka said he hopes Granlund returns to full strength by the end of this tournament.
Yesterday, he showed flashes that weren't evident in a 4-3 victory over the Czech Republic on Sunday. In that game, he threw a big check early in the first period, but notched just one assist and was clearly not in top form.
Against Russia, he undressed a pair of defencemen and generated a good chance out of nothing, and he also looked like he was about to dip into Crosby's bag of tricks. Stationed alone behind the goal in the second period, Granlund threatened to scoop the puck up on his blade and tuck it in the net in one motion. Crosby once scored a lacrosse-like goal when playing for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Rimouski Oceanic.
Let the comparison continue.