Every season there seems to be an unsigned prospect that captures the attention of the hockey world and captivates fans of all teams. These players are of course highly valued due to essentially being a free asset and thus teams tend to fight over them rather aggressively. In years past, players such as Justin Schultz (signed with Edmonton) and Jiri Sekac (signed with Montreal) have occupied this position of honor. Some of these players have went on to have fantastic careers, while others quickly faded back into obscurity their fifteen minutes of fame over with long ago.
One name though captivated more than the rest. His name was Swedish prospect Fabian Brunnstrom. After failing to be drafted, Brunnstrom impressed greatly in the following two seasons including a strong 37 point season in the Swedish Elite League as a 22 year old rookie in 2007-2008. Scouts viewed him quite favorably even going so far as to compare his game to Marian Hossa. His skill with the puck and size (6.01 Ft) in addition to his youth made him an extremely attractive asset. Videos such as this one captivated fans and soon Brunnstrom was the talk of the town in most online hockey communities. Indeed, many NHL teams started lining up to sign the Swede giving him fantastic leverage. In addition to commanding the max salary for an entry-level contract, he also was able to demand a roster spot on the NHL squad. Normally, players have to play a few years in the minors before even thinking about making the NHL, but such was the demand for this player that most teams were willing to accept the arrangement.
Eventually, Brunnstrom signed on with the Dallas Stars in the summer of 2008 and everyone in the hockey world thought that Dallas had scored a massive coup. These thoughts didn’t go away when Brunnstrom had the debut of a lifetime. In his very first NHL game, he scored three goals displaying all the skill and talent that scouts had fawned over the past few months. The buzz seemingly was real.
Sadly, unlike the fairly tales this story did not have a happy ending. That first game was the high watermark of his NHL career. He did go on to have a very successful rookie season securing 29 points, but failed to come close to this total ever again. This was compounded by injury problems that limited him to 55 games in 2008-2009 and 52 games in 2009-2010 split between the NHL and AHL. In that season, Brunnstrom secured just 11 points in 44 games causing the Stars to demote the talented youngster. By the 2010-2011 season, he was gone traded to the Toronto Marlies in order to save money on his expensive contract. The whole season he played in the AHL putting up decent numbers of 35 points in 72 games.
His contract was not renewed. In a last ditch effort to stay in the NHL, he accepted an invitation to tryout with the Detroit Red Wings. This was ironic considering that the Wings had tried very hard to acquire Brunnstrom when he first crossed the pond. It was figured that the Wing’s skating style would suit Brunnstrom. Indeed, the Wings thought enough of him to sign him to a professional contract. Unfortunately, after only five games with the Wings collecting one assist, he was sent down to the AHL. Again, he only played about half the season due to injuries collecting 35 points in 45 games. The following season Brunnstrom went back to Sweden never coming back again.
Now why didn’t it work out? There are many reasons. His toughness or lack thereof was cited by many as a big reason why. This damning quote from General Manager Ken Holland of the Red Wings speaks volumes
“We want to explore what’s out there. We’re looking for certain types of guys (for Grand Rapids),’’ Holland said on July 5. “I think Brunnstrom is a good player, but we need leadership, toughness down there.’‘
He just did not hold up well to the NHL game. His durability bears this out. He never played a full professional season during his sojourn in North America. The grit and physicality needed to play in this league was just not present in Fabian or so the critics said. He never could get comfortable and his myriad of injury problems made fitting in even more difficult. Perhaps spending some time in the AHL instead of directly going to the NHL (a path few players take) would have helped him adjust to the tough and tumble style of North American hockey. It is impossible to say now.
To draw any conclusions from this would be ridiculous. Plenty of undrafted free agents such as Andy McDonald and Martin St. Louis has thrived in the NHL. In this case, it just did not work out. The Fabian Brunnstrom experiment is at an end, but one summer in 2008, the whole hockey world was talking about him. That’s a story he can tell his children one day.