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Brunnstrom gradually learning the ropes

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

With several young players thrust into key roles due to the multitude of long-term injuries suffered this season, the Dallas Stars have had to rely on their rookies a little bit more than perhaps they were comfortable with.

One player who has responded well lately to increased responsibility and has shown steady progress in all aspects of the game so far this season is Swedish left winger Fabian Brunnstrom.

After earning an assist in the Stars’ 6-5 shootout victory over Columbus Thursday night, Brunnstrom has five points (three goals, two assists) in his last eight contests and seems to be improving on a nightly basis.

“I think it’s getting a little better and better, hopefully,” said Brunnstrom, 23. “Of course, we have a lot of injuries and it’s tough, but I just have to keep on working. I knew this was going to be tough. There’s many games left to the season, I think we can turn this thing around and make something good of it.”

“Brunnstrom is a young player that is very skilled, we knew there was going to be a transition period for him coming over here,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “He’s a very respectful player, very respectful of the league, his teammates, very willing to learn, had some ups and downs, as you see with a lot of young players - his consistency and doing the little things right in a game is improving every day. He has a knack for scoring around the net. He’s going to be a very good player in the NHL.”

With his recent offensive success, which included the game-winning goal in a crucial 2-1 triumph over defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit on Dec. 12, Brunnstrom now has nine goals, ranking third on the Stars and tied for fourth among NHL rookies, and 12 points in 28 games. His three game-winning goals ties Loui Eriksson for the club lead, and tops all league rookies, despite averaging just 11:16 of ice time per contest. 

Just the fact that Brunnstrom was selected as one of the shooters in the shootout against Columbus Thursday, even though Blue Jackets goalie Pascal Leclaire made a nice glove save on his backhander, demonstrates just how much progress he’s made and the confidence the coaching staff has in him.

“Just getting adapted to the NHL style, little plays that have to get made along the wall, situations playing without the puck are things that are different over here than there,” Tippett said of the ongoing transition Brunnstrom’s been making to the North American game after coming over from Sweden in September. “He has the skill to play in traffic, he’s not scared to go in traffic, he scores goals from in front of the net, which are all great signs for him. As he gets more adept at playing the NHL game and the smaller rink, he’ll become a more complete player.”

His teammates have recognized the strides Brunnstrom has made and the fact that the Stars have a few other players from Sweden (such as Eriksson, defenseman Nicklas Grossman and winger Joel Lundqvist) has undoubtedly helped.

“Trying to adjust to life over here, obviously, it’s a big change coming over from Europe, adjusting on-ice and off the ice,” noted center Mike Modano. “Having some Swedes here to help him with that, has definitely probably made that transition easier for him. He’s played well, he’s learning, it’s a process and we just need to be patient.

“He’s fairly strong, when he gets the puck in certain areas of the ice, he’s good with it, he can hold onto it, so he’s working to his strengths, around the net, in the corners. He’s able to buy himself some time with that, and that helps everybody else try to get open and get to the areas where you can support him a little bit.”

While he arrived in Dallas with much fanfare after signing a lucrative free agent contract last spring, Brunnstrom has experienced many of the same peaks and valleys as most NHL rookies, while also getting used to a new country, language (which he speaks fairly well) and culture. 

“I didn’t know what to expect really, but we’ve had a tough start here, too,” Brunnstrom said, referring to the fact that the Stars have spent much of this season in the Western Conference basement, although with two straight wins that leaves them with a 13-14-4 record, they are just three points back of the final playoff spot now. “It’s up and down, but it’s fun to be here and I enjoy the NHL.”

Brunnstrom pointed out skating on the smaller ice dimensions in North America, where rinks are 85 feet wide as opposed to 100 feet wide in Europe, has been the biggest adjustment for him on the ice.

“I think it’s the smaller rinks - you don’t have the time, the D’s coming right at you,” he said. “It’s better players, stronger, faster and everything. This is the best league in the world, so it’s pretty tough.”

Somewhat of a late bloomer who was never drafted, Brunnstrom caught the eye of NHL scouts with a monster offensive season in 2006-97 for Boras of the Swedish third division when he scored 38 goals and 79 points in 49 games. Moving up to the Swedish Elite League last season with Farjestads BK, Brunnstrom was one of the league’s top rookies with nine goals and 37 points in 54 games, sparking somewhat of a bidding war for his services that ended with him eventually choosing to sign with Dallas.

“It was a very, very hard decision,” Brunnstrom noted. “I liked Detroit and I liked Montreal too, but I felt like Dallas was maybe a little better fit for me at the time. I liked everything. It’s not that Detroit wasn’t good, I just thought that Dallas was a better fit for me. I enjoy to be here now in Dallas and you never know (how things might have turned out with a different decision).”

Brunnstrom admitted that all the attention he received last spring as he was pursued by so many NHL clubs was a bit more than he was comfortable with, and the fact that he was touted by many before the season as one of the favorites to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie only added to the pressure.

“I think it was a little too much,” he acknowledged. “I wasn’t one of the best Swedish players in the Swedish league in points or anything, I think it was just that I was a free agent. It was a little too much, but of course, it was fun for me, but maybe too much hype. Of course, I knew there was much pressure on me, but I tried not to think about it, just enjoy the game and was just glad to be here. I always wanted to come to North America and the NHL, so I was just glad to be here.”

The hype meter went up a bit after he scored a hat trick in his NHL debut, a 6-4 victory over Nashville on Oct. 15, becoming just the third player ever to accomplish such a feat, but Brunnstrom has continued his evolution into an effective overall player.

“It’s tough to score a hat trick every game,” Brunnstrom said. “I think people understand that it’s not going to be a hat trick every game. It was a very good start and we won the game, so it couldn’t be better that night.”

Now, as his NHL education continues on a nightly basis and Brunnstrom more consistently contributes to the Stars’ success, the future looks bright for the 6-foot-1, 202-pounder.

“It’s a crash course in learning the game,” Modano said. “He’s kind of been thrown into that situation probably a little quicker than everybody thought he’d be and we’re asking a lot of him. If things aren’t going well, your patience is shorter with guys, but he’s responded well.”

“I think we have played pretty good the last couple of games,” Brunnstrom said. “I think we are getting a better team, it feels pretty good right now.”
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