Centering the club’s third line, which for the last three contests has featured fellow second-year man Jamie Benn
and agitator Steve Ott
on the wings, the 23-year-old Wandell has been getting better and better as the season has unfolded.
With two goals in a 4-1 win in Florida on Oct. 21, Wandell has been helping generate offensive chances for a potent Stars attack that already had its top two lines scoring regularly en route to a quick 5-1-0 start before losing the last two at home, Saturday against Nashville 1-0 and a 5-2 decision Tuesday night to Anaheim. If Dallas could get three lines contributing to the scoresheet on a consistent basis, it would go a long way towards helping the club make it back to the playoffs this season after two years on the outside looking in.
“The last game looked pretty good, even though we didn’t score, but we created some very good opportunities,” the 6-foot-1, 197-pound Wandell said. “Hopefully, we can put a couple of pucks in the net next game.”
“He had a great breakout game for us in Florida and we’re starting to see his speed now,” said Stars coach Marc Crawford. “We’re starting to see him floating on his skates again, which we saw so much in the last 20 games that he played last year. We’re excited about Tom Wandell
, we’re excited about his talent. We can’t lose sight of the fact that he’s really still in the infancy of his career.”
After suiting up for 14 NHL games in 2008-09, recording a goal and two assists, Wandell was a pleasant surprise in training camp, earning a somewhat unexpected spot on the Dallas roster. He skated in 50 games, showing some skill and playing solidly defensively. He managed to net five goals and 15 points, while also registering a +2 plus/minus rating, which ranked sixth on the club, before tearing the ACL in his knee on Jan. 21, ending his season.
Following reconstructive surgery, he rehabbed his way back onto the ice in time for this past September’s training camp, but on the second day, Wandell was leveled by teammate Mark Fistric
in a scrimmage and sprained his shoulder. That forced him out of action until just before the regular season started, leaving him a little behind the other players in terms of regaining his timing and game conditioning.
It showed early, as Wandell recorded zero points, fired only two shots on goal, and averaged just 10:46 of ice time over the first four contests. But in the last four, he’s elevated his performance, scoring the two goals, directing seven shots on goal and logging 13:35 of ice time per game, including a season-high 14:50 Tuesday night.
“I kind of had a slow start to the season because I missed camp and everything,” said Wandell, a native of Sodertalje, Sweden. “It’s kind of hard to just jump into it. But I feel good now and I’m glad to be back in the lineup.”
In addition to overcoming his significant injuries, Wandell also dealt with getting hit by a puck in the mouth early on, splitting his lip. He wore a full face mask for a few days in practice, then took it off and got hit again in the mouth, opening up his lip all over again.
“I was a mess,” he said.
But those are minor issues hockey players shrug off all the time, as long as the big injuries are healed.
“The knee is good, perfectly fine, no problem at all,” Wandell smiled. “Shoulder’s fine too. I’m fully healthy right now and happy.”
“He’s missed nine months of hockey and he missed all of training camp, so you have to rationalize a little bit why it’s taken him so long to have a breakout game this far into the season,” added Crawford. “Logically speaking, it makes sense. He’s going to always have to be pushed to play more of a North American style of game and he’s capable of doing that. We don’t want to change the fact that he floats on his skates because he creates chances because of his speed. He’s hard to contain and he’s gotten a lot of scoring chances in the last couple of games because of those things.
“I think it’s no accident that Benn and Ott’s play have picked up since his play’s picked up and it’s been nice to have another dangerous group.”
Indeed, teaming up with those two 20-goal scorers, Wandell has a bit more of an opportunity to have an impact offensively, while still maintaining the strong defensive play he established as a rookie last year.
“It’s a pretty solid line for our team,” said Ott, who notched a career-high 22 goals in 2009-10 and also scored in the Florida game. “All of us bring pretty much a different element to the team with our games. Wandy’s a great skater through open ice, he can phenomenally pick up the puck and get going with it, and I think Benner ‘s such a great shooter and strong on the puck, and I just try to muck it up for those guys. I think we can be a very effective line. Early chemistry always helps and it’s always something to build on, so I think we gained a lot of confidence from that first game together.”
Now that he seems to be getting back on track, proving to be a very valuable, prototypical third line center, Wandell has earned the respect of his teammates with the way he battled his way back from the injuries and has continued to improve his play on the ice through it all.
“It’s still going to take some time, especially missing training camp and missing the rest of last season,” Ott noted, regarding Wandell’s learning curve as a second-year player. “It’s an extremely high hill to climb, but he’s been attacking it. He’s been working hard off the ice and he continued to show that he’s always ready. I know from the standpoint of playing with him, it’s good to see.”
“I’m making progress, that’s for sure,” said Wandell, the Stars’ fifth-round selection (146th overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. “I learned a lot last year. They say the second year is always tougher, but I feel good about this year. I feel good about this team, we’re winning, and hopefully, we’ll keep winning.”