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Brunnstr?m heads Swedish free agents drawing NHL attention

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com

Fabian Brunnström now has produced eight goals, 25 assists, 33 points and a plus-six rating in 42 games.
Hockey history is filled with tales of late-bloomers and unheralded players who rose to the top after playing in obscurity during their early years. But few have come further in a short period of time than Färjestads BK left wing Fabian Brunnström and Södertälje SK wingers Linus Klasen and Linus Videll.

All three young players are eligible to be signed as free agents by NHL teams after the 2007-08 Elitserien (Swedish Elite League) season is over. A host of NHL teams have been vying for the services of Brunnström, while there is secondary interest in both Videll and Klasen.

Brunnström and Klasen were never selected in the NHL Entry Draft. Videll was a seventh round pick (204th overall) of the Colorado Avalanche in 2003, but was not signed. The three players have all enjoyed breakthrough seasons and made their debuts with the Swedish national team over the course of their season.

Rising from the depth of Swedish hockey

Given his success this season, it seems improbable that Fabian Brunnström could have languished for five years in the lower Swedish minor leagues. But it’s true.

To get a sense of just how far Brunnström has come in the last few years, it’s helpful to know how Swedish hockey is organized. One rung below Elitserien is Allsvenskan, which is more or less the Swedish equivalent of the American Hockey League relative to the NHL. The next step down is Division I, which could be likened to the ECHL. Beneath this level are Division II and Division III.

As recently as three years ago, Brunnström was playing Division II hockey in Helsingborg. He never played for the Swedish junior national team in any age group, nor was he even selected for the TV-Puck tournament (an annual showcase for the top teenaged players from the various regional divisions of Sweden).

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While playing with Helsingborgs HC, Brunnström encountered a player who helped turn his career around. Former Russian junior national team player and Lada Togliatti product Sergei Marchkov was playing for the fourth-tier Swedish team at the time.

“He had a powerful influence on me, and took care of me,” Brunnström told Aftobladet’s Tomas Ros. “He had played for Russia in the World Junior Championships with, among others Pavel Bure, and he had unbelievable hockey knowledge. When I saw Sergei play, I was inspired and wanted to be as good as him.”

Brunnström, who celebrates his 23rd birthday today, rose slowly but steadily through the ranks of the Swedish minor leagues. In 2005-06, he scored 21 goals and 44 points in 38 games for Division I club Jonstorps IF. Last season, he joined Borås HC (a top Division I club that earned a promotion to Allsvenskan this season). Brunnström tore up the Division I level with 37 goals, 36 assists, 73 points and a staggering plus-51 rating in 41 games with Borås.

Färjestad Vice President and General Manager Håkan Loob, a former scoring star for the Calgary Flames, recruited Brunnström to play for FBK this season. The signing paid quick dividends. In Brunnström’s first 14 games, he posted nine points and showed the same type of offensive creativity that made him a dominant player for Borås.

“He’s certainly a name for the NHL,” a Western Conference scout said. “He is already drawing NHL attention here in Europe and will most likely sign with a team after this season if he keeps playing as he has. He’s got very good speed and soft hands.”

Three months later, Brunnström now has produced eight goals, 25 assists (sixth in the league), 33 points (17th in the league) and a plus-six rating in 42 games. He just made his Tre Kronor debut in an LG Hockey Games warm-up match against Slovakia, won by the Slovaks, 5-1.

“Brunnström is a pretty well rounded player,” says an Eastern Conference scout. “He’s got decent size (6-foot-1, 202 pounds), skates well, sees the ice very well and is pretty solid in his own end of the ice. He looks like more of a playmaker than a scorer, but he’s got a lot of moves and can also put the puck in the net. He doesn’t look like a typical first-year player in the Elite League, because he’s a little older and stronger.”

Today, some people have even likened Brunnström’s NHL potential to that of Ottawa Senators superstar Daniel Alfredsson.

“I don’t know if that’s fair to Fabian to put that kind of expectation on him,” a second Eastern Conference scout says. “There are some stylistic similarities, but Alfredsson is one of the absolute best players in the world. Brunnström isn’t at that level right now. But I will say this, Brunnström has a chance to an NHL regular and a good one.”

Reportedly, the teams that have most heavily pursued Brunnström are the Detroit Red Wings, Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks. But at least 20 NHL teams have scouted him and maintain varying levels of interest in signing him. Last weekend, Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren and Vancouver Canucks GM Dave Nonis watched Brunnström play in person during scouting trips to Sweden

Färjestad is a perennial championship contender in Elitserien. The team finished in first place during the regular season and, in the six previous seasons, reached the finals every year in the playoffs, winning the championship twice. While Färjestad has been somewhat inconsistent this season, they are tied for second place heading into the home stretch of the season.

From here on out, every game will be a big one for Brunnström and company. Of course, NHL teams have their sights set on what Brunnström will do beyond this season. But the player has said he realizes that he can’t yet focus on the NHL.

“I want to win the Swedish championship. We’ll deal with everything else when the season is over,” he told Aftonbladet.

Loob has said that his player would be best served by some added experience, rather than being rushed immediately to the NHL.

“If they treat him the right way, I think he's got a good future ahead of him,” Loob told The Hockey News. “But if he's thrown into the NHL too soon, he might not do anything.”

A decade ago, a Färjestad player named Pelle Prestberg came out of nowhere at age 22-- he was a Division I star for Munkfors-- to become a scoring force, helping FBK win the championship. He was promptly drafted by the Anaheim Ducks (at that time, even “over-aged” Euro players had to be taken in the Entry Draft in order to be NHL-eligible). Prestberg has never made it to the NHL. Today, he is in his second tour of duty with FBK, and leads the team with 23 goals (tied for second most in Elitserien).

While the bigger Brunnström is considered more of a well-rounded player and better suited to the NHL game than Prestberg ever was, there is a big difference between making an immediate impact in Elitserien and starring right away in the NHL. But Brunnström has come so far from his humble hockey origins and defied such steep odds already that the next steps may not seem so daunting by comparison.

“Fabian is an inspiration to players in their early 20s who never stood out as juniors and who are toiling in Division I or Division II,” said Detroit Red Wings European super-scout Håkan Andersson.

Answering the doubters

Last weekend, with NHL scouts and NHL GMs Holmgren and Nonis in attendance, Brunnström’s Färjestad club played against Linus Videll and Linus Klasen’s Södertälje team in Karlstad. The game ended in a 4-4 tie.

By all accounts, it was not the most crisply played of matches, but all three players got on the board. Brunnström assisted on a goal during FBK’s four-goal outburst in the opening period, while Klasen opened the scoring for SSK and Videll posted a pair of assists.

With all the attention being paid to Brunnström (especially in North America), the play of Videll and Klasen has gone largely unmentioned. But several NHL teams have reportedly had their eyes on the two SSK players as well as Brunnström.

“I personally would take Brunnström ahead of them but they both have a chance in the future to be good enough players to challenge for a spot somewhere in the NHL,” said a Western Conference scout.

In recent years, Södertälje has been a much lower-profile team than Färjestad. The team was relegated to Allsvenskan in 2006 and had to earn their way back to Elitserien last year. This season, SSK is currently in eighth place in Elitserien – clinging to the final playoff spot by a mere two points, and a mere four points separates them from 11th place (which would force the club to re-qualify for Elitserien or face another relegation).

Södertälje’s big problem has been scoring goals. The team, backstopped by Buffalo Sabres prospect Jhonas Enroth and Björn Bjurling, has allowed the fewest goals in the league. But SSK has also scored the second fewest goals in the league. The two Linuses, Videll and Klasen, have been the only consistent offensive threats, along with Canadian import Quinn Hancock and Finnish center Petri Pakaslahti.

Klasen, who will turn 22 in two weeks, is in his rookie season in Elitserien and first with SSK after developing through the ranks of Huddinge IK at the junior, Division I and Allsvenskan levels. The left wing also spent part of the 2004-05 season in USHL playing for the Lincoln Stars, but opted to go back to Huddinge.

Like Brunnström, Klasen was a standout at the Swedish minor league levels. In 2005-06, he tore apart Division I opponents for 62 points (22 goals) in 35 games. Last season, with Huddinge promoted to Allsvenskan, he had 50 points (16 goals) in 44 games. Klasen was recruited by several Elitserien clubs, most notably Djurgårdens IF Stockholm, but opted to sign a two-year contract with Södertälje.

Klasen has immediately shown he belongs in the Elite league and was a late addition to Tre Kronor’s roster for the LG Hockey Games. With 12 goals and 26 points in 41 games is one point behind Pakaslahti for the team point lead. Far and away, the player’s greatest attributes are his speed, puckhandling and ability to rapidly turn seemingly innocent plays into scoring chances.

Linus Videll was a late-round draft pick by Colorado Avalanche in 2003.

The biggest drawback: lack of size. Klasen stands a mere 5-foot-8 and weighs about 165 pounds. At least one Eastern Conference NHL scout fears Klasen’s size would hinder him in the North American pro game.

“He’s skilled with the puck, but I don’t think he’ll be the same caliber player as Daniel Briere or Martin St. Louis, where he’ll score so much in the NHL, you can overlook the size issue,” the scout said. “If (Klasen) was 6-foot, he’d have probably been drafted a couple years ago.”

Meanwhile, the Western Conference scout said that Klasen’s size isn’t a deal-breaker on his NHL candidacy. “He’s still learning but can be a very good playmaking center with exceptional hands. He can still improve, too. He is small, but doesn’t seem afraid to go into crowded areas. With his talent and quickness, I don’t see the size as something that would hold him back. There are similar players in the NHL.”

Klasen’s teammate and namesake, Videll, has the opposite attributes and liabilities. There is no questioning whether the winger has NHL size (he stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 212 pounds). His large frame and nice touch around the net helped him to become a late-round draft pick by Colorado in 2003, although the Avs elected not to sign him before they had to relinquish his rights.

The biggest question mark about Videll is his skating, which many feel held him back until the last two seasons. The player, who will turn 23 in May, has 13 goals and 25 points so far during the 2007-08 season. During the fall, he was chosen for Team Sweden for the Karjala Cup in Finland. A year ago, at the Allsvenskan level, he tallied 16 goals and 39 points in 45 games for Södertälje.

“Videll has always been knocked by scouts for his ugly skating, but now that he has made it to the Swedish national team as a 22-year-old, we’re taking another look,” the Western Conference scout said. “He is strong on the puck and has a scoring touch along with his size. He can take a hit. His defensive game was not good but has improved, he’s not a liability. As for the skating, it doesn’t look pretty but his speed is deceptive. He is hard to catch.”

While some scouts say that Videll is now at least an adequate defensive forward, others say it is still a drawback. The player is minus-five at even strength this season for SSK. By way of comparison, Klasen is plus-six and the majority of SSK regulars are on the positive side of the ledger.

“His defensive game will never be confused with (former NHLer and current Modo Hockey player) Niklas Sundström. Part of the problem is the skating. When he’s caught up ice, he doesn’t always get back quick enough. But I like his offensive instincts and hands. You can work on defense, but you can’t teach offensive ability. Put him with the right linemates and I think he could score even more,” said an Eastern Conference scout.

It is a virtual lock that an NHL team will sign Fabian Brunnström after this season. It’s less certain whether an NHL club will take a flier on Linus Klasen and/or Linus Videll in the immediate future. But if both Södertälje players continue to develop the way they’ve come on in the last year or two, look for the duo to make future appearances with the Swedish national team and earn a shot at the NHL.

 

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