Making the transition from Europe to the NHL is a difficult enough process to undertake under the best of circumstances, so for the Dallas Stars’ 22-year-old rookie center Tom Wandell
, having to do it mid-season, in the midst of a desperate playoff race, has been a much more challenging scenario.
But while it may have taken him several games to get used to the larger ice dimensions in North America, Wandell has looked pretty good, continually improving his performances since his recall from Timra IK of the Swedish Elite League on March 22.
In his seventh game back in Dallas (following a prior four-game stint in December) Saturday night, Wandell played his best game yet, registering two assists in a 5-4 overtime victory over St. Louis in the final home game of the season. And while he didn’t reach the scoresheet Tuesday against Minnesota, he was involved, firing three shots on goal.
“I feel good now, the last couple of games, to get into the North American hockey here,” said Wandell, who was the Stars’ fifth-round selection (146th overall) in the 2005 Entry Draft. “I feel good now, I feel comfortable with the team right now, I get to play more, get more ice time and hopefully I can keep going better and better until next season I can be even more ready.”
“You could tell he’s an intelligent player,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said of Wandell. “He sees the ice well, he manages the ice well. I think there’s lots of upside there. He’s showing some flashes, you’d like to see those flashes be more consistent. We’ll see how he goes. He’s obviously a good player, he’s got good skill. I think he has to dig into the game, the guts of the game a little more, where he’s involved in some more traffic and involved in some more one-on-one battles that allows him to get the puck more. But he’s a player that’s had some good spurts in there and we expect to get more from him.”
After spending his first couple of games back toiling on the fourth line, Wandell was promoted and has teamed up well the last several games on a line with the club’s leading goal scorer, Loui Eriksson
. Veteran Brendan Morrison and rookie James Neal have each spent time on the other wing. Overall, Wandell has looked more and more comfortable, earning more ice time. After averaging just 6:02 per game during his first tour of duty in December, Wandell has logged an average of 12:01 since his recall, including a career-high 17:06 Tuesday night.
“He’s a skilled guy out there, he’s really good with the puck and it seems like the puck is following him out there,” said Eriksson, who scored two goals, each off assists from Wandell, Saturday night. “He’s a good skater, too, and he can make something happen out there. He’s a good player. Of course, it takes a couple of games to get into it and (Saturday), he looked pretty good. We have to keep building on that one and keep playing good.”
“Loui is a guy that I think could help him along a little bit so we paired them up,” Tippett said of his decision to put the two Swedes together. “We’ll see how that goes. They’ll probably stay together for another game or two, we’ll see.”
After coming over to North America last season for the first time and spending most of the year at AHL Iowa, where he scored 10 goals and 19 points in 53 games, Wandell headed back to Sweden for 2008-09. Since the Stars no longer controlled their own AHL affiliate, they opted to send him back to the Swedish Elite League for the year, where he excelled for Timra IK. The 6-foot-1, 183-pound center enjoyed an impressive season there, recording 15 goals and 41 points in 51 games, and when his club was eliminated following a grueling, seven-game first-round playoff series, the Stars brought him back.
So after skating on the larger European ice all year, Wandell has had to adjust on the fly to the rinks here, which are 85 feet wide as opposed to 100 across the pond.
“It’s easier if you’ve been here a year before, but I’ve been playing in Sweden all year on big ice, lots of time and space, but you got to figure it out when you come back here,” said Wandell, who scored his first NHL goal on Dec. 12 in his second big-league game. “It’s just the speed, of course, and it’s technical, and the best guys in the world. It’s an adjustment, but I’m getting better.”
“It’s definitely an adjustment coming over from the Swedish Elite League in mid-season, especially the situation we’re in with the playoff run,” Morrison added. “He’s handled himself well, I think he’s gotten better. I think (Saturday) was probably his best game out of all the games he’s played. I think he’s getting more confident with the puck and the more experience he’s getting, the better he’s getting.”
As well as trying to contribute to the club’s fortunes down the stretch, Wandell is also looking to make an impression on management in an attempt to vie for a full-time job next season.
“I think (playing here late in the season) will help me be a lot more comfortable with the team, with the guys, all that stuff,” Wandell said. “I look forward to next season.”
“He did a great job in the Swedish Elite League this year,” Eriksson said, “and this is good for him to get some games in and get ready for next year, to come up and play good here.”
Wandell’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by the guys he wants to impress, although there’s no question he will have to continue his progress in order to accomplish his objective.
“He’s a player that’s going to come to camp next year and he’ll have to make our hockey team,” Tippett noted, “so these experiences late in the year are good for him. We’ve got a few guys like that.”
“I like Tom, Tom is a real cerebral player,” said co-General Manager Brett Hull. “He sees the game, he sees the ice, he’s strong positionally. I think he’s getting some valuable experience for next year right now. It’s a big transition playing in Europe to here, because there’s so much room over there. He needs to get his bearings to the small ice and the speed, but otherwise, as soon as he does that, he’s going to be fine.”
For Wandell, there’s still a lot of work yet to be done, but so far, so good.