A highly-sought after free agent, Brunnstrom signed with Dallas last spring out of his native Sweden and spent his first year in North America adapting to the smaller ice surface and placing more emphasis than he was used to on the defensive side of the game. Despite some growing pains, Brunnstrom, 24, still completed his rookie year with an impressive 17 goals and 29 points in 55 games.
His final month and a half typified how the entire year went for him. After struggling through a 13-game stretch in March where he sat out as a healthy scratch six times and failed to register a point in the seven he did suit up for, Brunnstrom was outstanding in the final five contests, contributing four goals and two assists and firing 14 shots on goal. Of course, team-first player that he is, he was more consumed with disappointment that the club missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
“Yeah, I felt a little bit better the last games,” noted Brunnstrom, whose 17 goals ranked fifth on the Stars and 10th among all NHL freshmen. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough because we’re missing the playoffs, but maybe for myself, it was a little bit better. I was trying to skate a little bit more and dig in a little bit more. I felt a little bit better and of course, I’ve learned stuff over the season.”
“The last seven games here, he’s been awesome, he’s been great,” said fellow Swede Loui Eriksson
, who led the club with 36 goals in his third NHL season after collecting six and 14 his first two years. “Obviously, he’s been pretty good the whole season, he scored 17 goals? That’s a helluva job from a new guy coming in to this league, to score that many goals.”
With all the injuries to forwards that the Stars encountered this season, Brunnstrom was thrust into probably more of a primary role than he was maybe ready for at times, but the learning curve was undoubtedly accelerated because of that. The development of young players like Brunnstrom was one of the biggest silver linings from what turned out to be a sub-standard season in Dallas.
“It’s very disappointing, but you look at the season and the injuries, just never really got anything going, we seemed to be chasing it from Day One,” Stars co-General Manager Brett Hull said. “But then you look and the opportunity a lot of our young guys got to play and to show what they can do, was very encouraging. The strides that a young Fabian Brunnstrom made, coming into a completely foreign situation for him and the strides he made as a player, and learning what it’s like to play in the NHL.”
“There are some young guys I think really took steps forward this year that we expect them to take another step next year,” coach Dave Tippett added. “There are some real bright futures within the organization.”
Brunnstrom was a key performer this year, coming through in the clutch often, topping the team - and all league rookies - with five game-winning goals. Plus, while averaging just 11:37 of ice time per game, he totaled 81 shots on goal and his shooting percentage of 21.0 percent would have tied for the NHL lead if he’d taken enough shots to qualify for the list.
Eager to continue where he left off, Brunnstrom hopes to take his game to a new level next season, acknowledging that he still has many areas to improve in.
“I think I have to work on everything, but try to shoot a little bit more maybe, dig in a little bit more,” the 6-foot-1, 202-pound Brunnstrom said. “It’s more physical over here too, so it’s a new part of the game for me, too, but as I said, I think I have to work on everything. I’ll try to spend the summer now to work on small things and come well-prepared for next year.”
“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,” Tippett said. “As he gets more adept at playing the NHL game and the smaller rink, he’ll become a more complete player.”
He agreed he still needs to get better defensively, although he has already made significant progress since he first arrived.
“My strength is, I think, the offensive part of the game, so defense is something I have to work on,” said Brunnstrom, who finished with a plus/minus rating of -8. “But I also think it’s something I’ve been better on this year, too. So hopefully, I can get even a little bit better next year.”
Brunnstrom indicated that he would like to even out some of the ups and downs next season by playing with more consistency.
“Try to be ready all the time,” he said, stating his goal for next year. “I think as you’re growing older, you learn to be more consistent, too. I’m still a pretty young player, so maybe I’ll learn to be more consistent.”
While adjusting to the smaller North American ice rinks, which are 85 feet wide as opposed to 100 in Europe, was a challenge for him, playing an 82-game season (compared to 55 in Sweden) and traveling multiple time zones to road games also required adapting to.
“I felt great all season, actually, I wasn’t tired,” maintained Brunnstrom, who missed 17 games due to injury from late December through early February. “We play a lot of games and do a lot of traveling, but I felt good. We have everything great at the practice facility here, our own plane, good hotels, so it’s not tough that way, it’s just a lot of games. Of course, it takes some time to get used to it, but I like it. It’s hockey all the time. It’s just fun.”
So now, with a full NHL season spent under his belt during which he learned many lessons, Brunnstrom is looking forward to continuing his upward progress next year, believing that the team overall will rebound with a positive showing as well.
“I knew the season was going to be really tough for me,” Brunnstrom said. “The smaller rinks, you don’t have the time, the D’s coming right at you. It’s better players, stronger, faster and everything - this is the best league in the world. This is the league that I want to be in and it’s my dream. It was tough, but now I can look at it and I think it was really valuable for me. I played (over) 50 games and for next season, I think it’s going to be really valuable for me. I learned lots of things this year.
“I enjoyed the whole season even if I was hoping that we’d make the playoffs. But I think next season is going to be great for us. We can work from now, get a good vacation and come back ready next year.”