By Dave Campbell, AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Wild haven't had much production from their first-round draft picks of the past six years.
Well, on Friday night they went back to a strategy that worked before -- taking a center from Finland.
The Wild selected Mikael Granlund with the ninth pick in the first round of the draft, a center from Finland just like Mikko Koivu nine years ago when they got him with the sixth selection.
Granlund averaged nearly one point per game for his team in the Finnish Elite League last season with 13 goals and 27 assists, earning the rookie of the year award. At the World Junior Championships, he led Finland with seven points and six assists.
NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb called Granlund a clone of Saku Koivu, Mikko's older brother.
"He's small, but no one's told him he's small," Stubb said in a statement distributed by the Wild. "He has a really good, winning attitude. Works very hard. He's tough, and he has very good hockey sense."
The 18-year-old Granlund is 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds. He was ranked by the NHL's Central Scouting Service as the top available European skater in this year's draft.
Granlund was excited talking about Minnesota, with the Koivu connection and the Wild's scheduled visit to Finland in October to open the regular season against Carolina.
"I know it's a hockey place. Hockey is a big thing there," Granlund said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where the draft was held. "The Koivus are very popular. Of course, they're great players."
Granlund said he plans to play in Finland at least one more year. Center is certainly a position the Wild could use help at, behind their captain and best all-around player.
"After next season, we'll see," Granlund said.
This is the highest pick the Wild have had in four years, since taking center James Sheppard with the ninth selection in 2006.
Four of Minnesota's former first-rounders were on the roster last season, led by Koivu, but Pierre-Marc Bouchard was out with post-concussion problems and Sheppard barely played and was unproductive when he did. Brent Burns remains Minnesota's top talent on the blue line, but he's been limited in recent years by injuries and post-concussion problems. Burns might have to be traded to fetch the true top-six forward that this year's class of free agents is lacking in.
Last year's first-rounder, Nick Leddy, was traded to Chicago for defenseman Cam Barker, once the third overall selection by the Blackhawks. Benoit Pouliot, who went fourth overall in 2005, was moved to Montreal for Guillaume Latendresse, who became Minnesota's leading scorer after the trade.
But the Wild are still waiting on Tyler Cuma, Colton Gillies and Sheppard, their first-rounders of 2008, 2007 and 2006, to start scoring goals and shore up their front lines.
The draft continues on Saturday, when the Wild have six more picks. That includes the 39th and 56th overall selections in the second round.