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Healthy Wandell primed for big second year

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

The casual Dallas Stars fan could be forgiven if they don’t quite remember who Tom Wandell is, but they will soon get re-acquainted with the 23-year-old Swedish center. 

After missing the final 32 games of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his knee that required reconstructive surgery, Wandell is back for his second NHL season feeling healthy and eager to get back on the ice.

  Wandell Highlights
“The knee is great and I’m ready to go,” said Wandell, who has been skating at the club’s practice facility at Frisco’s Dr Pepper Arena for the last week or two. “Being back is the best part, to meet the guys again, be in the locker room, be in action. That’s why I love it.”

The Stars are looking forward to seeing what the second-year two-way forward can do when healthy for a full season. As an unheralded rookie last year who made the team as a somewhat pleasant surprise out of training camp, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Wandell made a quiet impact at both ends of the ice. 

Displaying flashes of offensive skill, he registered five goals and 15 points in 50 games, while logging an average of 13:52 of ice time per contest. At the same time, Wandell showed a strong defensive presence, helping to minimize opponents’ offensive chances, while also contributing to the penalty killing unit. He even registered a +2 plus/minus rating, which was good for sixth on the club.
Wandell first came over to North America in 2007-08, skating in 53 games for the Stars’ former AHL affiliate in Iowa, compiling 10 goals and 19 points before heading back to the Swedish Elite League for 2008-09. Even in Sweden for the majority of the year, he still got the opportunity to suit up for 14 NHL contests, scoring his first NHL goal and adding two assists when he was recalled from his Timra IK club for a couple of stints. His year with Timra was also impressive, as he collected 15 goals and 41 points in 51 games.

Last season, many observers figured that Wandell would at least start the season with the Stars’ new AHL club based in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park, but he opened some eyes in Dallas’ training camp and pre-season and ultimately claimed a roster spot. 

He endured the usual ups and downs that NHL rookies do, going through one difficult stretch where he recorded just one assist over a span of 21 games, but in early January, things really started to click for him. But just as it seemed like he was hitting his stride, he suffered his knee injury Jan. 21 at Vancouver. Wandell recorded points in each of his last three games played (one goal, two assists), and logged a career-high 22:08 of ice time Jan.16 against Detroit. 
Having to sit out the rest of the season was a big blow to both the Stars and the player himself, derailing what was turning into an outstanding rookie year. 

“It was (frustrating), I missed almost a half-season,” said Wandell, the Stars’ fifth-round selection (146th overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. “I wanted to play a full season over here, I’d never done it before, so it was really frustrating and to go through this ACL injury before. It helped me a lot, of course, that I’d (tore my ACL in the other knee and worked my way back) before and knew what was waiting for me. I didn’t think too much, I just tried to do the best with the situation. It’s been tough of course, but you got to battle through it.” 

“We’ve played together for a couple of years now and every year, he’s made great steps forward, and last year was huge for him,” added occasional linemate Toby Petersen. “Before the injury, he was looking great out there. His injury came at a tough time, but he looks good now and he looks like he’s doing well and ready to get back after it.”

With training camp starting on Friday in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in Canada, Wandell doesn’t expect the knee to give him any trouble or hinder him at all in 2010-11, which opens for the Stars on Oct. 8 in New Jersey.

“I’m not worried at all,” said Wandell, who had a knack for scoring in clutch situations last season, with three of his five goals counting as game-winners, including one in overtime, ranking him tied for third on the team. “I feel strong, I just need to be on the ice more to get comfortable. That’s about it, my knee’s 100 percent, so I’m not worried. I know I’m going to be in good shape. It’s all about the timing. It’s a month left until the first game, so I’ll be fine.” 

Still, after not playing for nine months, Wandell is not taking anything for granted and knows that he is going to have to work hard in training camp to once again earn his roster spot for the coming season. The truth is, with the impressive depth the Stars boast at forward, Wandell’s job is not completely secure - he’s going to have to seize it with his performance.

“You’re never sure, there’s guys coming up, like I did last year,” said Wandell. “I know how it feels, there are guys coming up like I was last year, so I’ve got to battle as hard as when I came up last year.”

On the other hand, club management clearly feels comfortable that Wandell is still improving and will have an impact on their fortunes this year, or they might have opted to retain a certain franchise icon who left as a free agent. They also thought enough of him to sign him to a two-year contract extension back on April 1 that will pay him $1.55 million ($700,000 this year, $850,000 in 2011-12).

Tom Wandell is a good, young two-way player that has the potential to play various roles on our roster,” said Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. “He is part of our young core that will be the future of the Dallas Stars. We were impressed with his development over the past few years in our system and we are now looking at him to become an integral part of our success in Dallas.”

“Maybe I feel confidence from the staff and the coaches,” Wandell acknowledged. “I hope they know what I can do out there, in terms of defense - and I can play offense, too, but if I’m going to do the same role as last year, I’m happy with that. I’m just happy to be here.”

It’s a pretty safe bet that Stars fans will be happy he’s here, too, as he continues to grow into a more valuable contributor.

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