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KalPa takes a flier on Brendl

by Bill Meltzer
There scarcely has been a more polarizing hockey talent in the last 20 years than Czech-born sniper Pavel Brendl. One team after another has attempted to unlock the seemingly boundless scoring potential he displayed for the Western Hockey League's Calgary Hitmen during his junior career. No club has ever been fully satisfied with what they've gotten, even when Brendl has ranked at or near the top of the league goal-scoring charts.

Recently, KalPa Kuopio of SM-Liiga (the Finnish Elite League) signed Brendl to a short-term contract that expires at the end of November. In so doing, KalPa has become the 29-year-old Brendl's 10th professional organization since the New York Rangers made him the fourth pick of the 1999 NHL Entry Draft. The signing also was somewhat unusual in the fact that Brendl's new boss, at least for the time being, is someone for whom he once was traded. KalPa's majority owner, long-time NHL forward Sami Kapanen, was traded in February 2003 from the Carolina Hurricanes to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Brendl and defenseman Bruno St. Jacques.

To date, Brendl has played 10 games for KalPa. He got off to a slow start, with just 1 goal and no assists in his first five games. But he has been hot recently, with 5 goals and 5 assists in his last 10 games to bring his season totals to 6 goals and 11 points. While Brendl missed the first six games of the 2010-11 season, he already is second on his team in scoring behind Tuomas Kiiskanen (9 goals, 14 points) and has hit the league's top 25.

"There's no secret what Pavel brings to our hockey team. He's a pure sniper, especially on the power play, and he's someone who can score a lot of goals in a short time," said KalPa coach Pekka Virta.

Brendl, who reportedly still is shopping for a contract in the KHL, Switzerland or North America, has been non-committal about whether he'd spend a full season in the lower-paying SM-Liiga. Nevertheless, he thinks signing with KalPa has been a good move for him. In European hockey, there also are tax issues to consider, although this primarily affects foreign players in Sweden.

"I hadn't played in Finland before, and KalPa is a good organization. I have good teammates here, and I am enjoying myself, so we'll see what happens,” said Brendl, who has made brief stops in Switzerland (National League B) and the Czech Extraliga, as well as playing two seasons with two different clubs in Sweden's Elitserien and spending two years in the KHL since he last played in North America for the Phoenix Coyotes organization in 2005-06.

It is not that Brendl has become a veritable nomad because he's had no success in his European career. Indeed, one of the biggest disappointments in recent NHL history (just 11 goals and 22 points in 77 games) often has been one of the top scorers on the continent and showing what NHL teams expected him to be after he was one of the most prolific goal scorers in Canadian junior-hockey history, where he racked up a combined 172 goals and 320 points in 178 games for the Hitmen. But there is more to hockey than simply scoring goals, and Brendl has bounced from one mediocre club to another.

In 2006-07, Brendl was a virtual one-man assault for Mora IK, leading Elitserien in goals (34) and ranking second in points (57) despite playing for an eighth-place team that scored only 147 goals as a team, meaning Brendl figured in 38.8 percent of the club's offense. But his production was significantly skewed toward the early part of the season. The next season, he moved on to Brynäs IF Gävle, where he had 31 goals and 55 points in 54 games, but had a minus-11 rating on a last-place team. Brendl often found himself getting on the bad side of the league's referees (he was whistled for a career-high 110 penalty minutes), who frequently sent him off for holding or hooking infractions and then tacked on extra penalties when he complained. Nevertheless, Brendl finished second in the league in goals and third in points.

Prior to signing with KalPa in early October, Brendl spent the last two seasons in the KHL with a non-contending Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod club. In 2008-09, he tied for the league goal-scoring lead (35) and placed 10th in scoring with 50 points. But he went pointless in the playoffs as his club was swept. Last season, his 27 goals were the second-best total in the league, but his minus-9 rating at even strength was unsatisfactory on a club that had 11 plus-rated regulars. Brendl's critics pointed to same issues that have been raised ever since the New York Rangers drafted him -- below-average skating, subpar conditioning and a lack of commitment to battling for loose pucks.

Even so, Brendl's ability to score goals in bunches and his underrated passing ability keeps teams coming back for more. KalPa, a club that has been in title contention the last few seasons and won bronze in the Finnish playoffs in 2009, arguably is the best club relative to the rest of that Brendl has played for since coming back to Europe. KalPa currently is in fifth place in SM-Liiga, 10 points behind league-leading JYP, but just five points out of third place.

The top six teams in the 14-club circuit get an automatic bye in the first round of the playoffs, with the seventh through 10th-place squads battling in first-round miniseries. The Kuopio team's hope is Brendl's scoring pop will help them rack up a few more points in the crowded standings for the duration of his time with the team.
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