has done just about everything for the Stars this season; he’s played center, winger, logged big minutes on the penalty kill and has scored goals when his team needs it most. And he’s only 22.
The Stars’ rookie center actually played 14 games for the Stars last season registering a goal and two assists. But Wandell says the experience he gained from his first two stints with the Stars was worth so much more.
“They called me up twice last year from Sweden,” Wandell says. “Those 14 games last year I think were really important to get to know the guys. When I came to camp this year, I felt a lot more comfortable. I knew the guys.”
Coming into training camp this season, Wandell wanted to make sure he wouldn’t have to split time and fly between his club in Sweden and the Stars. For Stars’ head coach Marc Crawford, Wandell’s skill and natural ability was evident from the start.
“He’s got good distribution abilities [as a center], but he’s also got enough power and grit in his game that he can muscle pucks out and do the things that wingers have to do to be effective,” Crawford says. “At the end of the day though, it’s his skating that separates him. He’s got great balance. He’s got great maneuverability with the puck, getting himself into position and keeping his feet moving. The more that he utilizes his great skating ability and the more that he stays strong on the puck in the face of some very adverse checking conditions, I think the better the player he is going to become.”
His skating and sharp mind for the game has allowed Wandell to fill many holes for the Stars this year. When James Neal missed two games earlier this season due to a suspension, Wandell filled in – as a winger – for Neal on the top line with Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson
“When you skate as well as he does, you’ve got that ability to play in a lot of different positions,” Crawford says. “You also have to have the intelligence to recognize that the jobs are somewhat different; the winger watches plays develop in front of him and the centerman is more of a distributor of plays.”
Stepping in for the Stars’ leading goal scorer is no easy task, but Wandell wasn’t phased. He recorded a goal – a game-winner against one of the game’s best goaltenders in Martin Brodeur – and an assist in his two games on the top line.
But Wandell has had a knack for scoring goals when they matter most this season. Three of his four tallies this season have been game-winners. His biggest goal to date came last Saturday at home against Tampa Bay. With a 3-1 lead and five minutes left to go in the third period, Dallas seemed all but assured of a win. But the Lightning came back and scored two goals 47 seconds apart to send the game in to overtime. After a minute break to regroup, Dallas came out ready to win a game that should have already ended. Wandell led the charge for the Stars, with two quality chances, the second of which ended the game with Stars victory.
“Obviously, [scoring game-winning goals] is a special feeling,” he says. “The last home game here in OT was an unbelievable feeling to score that goal and get us two points - two important points. It feels great to be there when the team needs you. It’s just a special feeling.”
Although he is one of the youngest players on the team, Wandell leads all forwards in ice time on the penalty kill by nearly six minutes. He is thrilled to be getting ice time, particularly in such a vital role, but penalty killing didn’t come naturally to Wandell. He took advantage of his time in the minors and in Europe to improve his defensive game.
“I feel comfortable on defense, so the PK is huge for me,” Wandell says. “I feel I have a pretty strong defensive game. I think I’ve gotten a lot better these last two years. Before then, I was struggling a little bit, but now I feel more comfortable. I had good coaches back home and I had one year in Iowa with Davey Allison. He was great for me and he taught me a lot.”
Coach Crawford finds comfort in knowing he has such a strong and sharp young player to throw in in shorthanded situations.
“In penalty killing, one of the biggest attributes you need is awareness, and he’s a very, very aware player,” Crawford says. “He reads the play extremely well, he’s got a good stick, he’s able to read what the opposition is trying to do and therefore position himself and position his stick accordingly. Where his improvement needs to come is on those one-on-one battles and those battles for loose pucks against veteran hardened NHL players. Again, that’s experience. The more experience he gets, the more determined he’ll become.”
As is the case with any player in any stage of his career, Wandell knows he still has areas of his game that could be better. Luckily for him, he has teammates who are more than willing to help him in any way they can. In particular, Wandell’s fellow Swedes, Loui Eriksson
, Fabian Brunnstrom and Nicklas Grossman, have assisted him with not only the language barriers but with adjusting to North America and the NHL game.
“It’s helped with everything, on the ice and off the ice,” Wandell says. “They’ve helped a lot with the small things. You can ask any question you want and they just tell you what to do. It’s been great to have Fabian, Loui and Grossy here. I knew Grossy before coming to Dallas. We played juniors together in Sweden, so we know each other pretty well. It’s really great to have him here.”
With such a successful rookie year, it seems like Wandell’s only issue has been understanding locker room chatter.
“Sometimes it’s kind of hard to understand the English slang, but I think I’m picking up more every day,” he says. “I try to talk as much as possible in English, so I’m getting better.”