My girlfriend’s mother bought me a Red Wings calendar for Christmas and I hung it up in my cubicle at work. It went through its stars pretty quickly; Zetterberg in January, Franzen in February, Kronwall in March, Datsyuk in April. I feel like it was pretty evident that the calendar was running out of steam when I turned over the page on May 31st to see June’s Red Wing… Damien Brunner.
My immediate reaction was to smirk a little. I even had a “He doesn’t even go here!” moment. But as I came into work over the past couple weeks and saw his picture on the wall, it made me remember things. How excited he was to be a Red Wings. Girls fawning over him on Twitter. Being at the Joe when he had the OT winner against the Ducks in game 4…
I never really wanted Brunner to head elsewhere, although I wasn’t too crazy about giving him a crazy amount of money either. He was making a little less that $1 million his first year in the NHL, and he certainly was due for a raise. However, one season spent mostly on Zetterberg’s wing (a shortened season at that) doesn’t necessarily warrant $3 million a year over multiple years. I spent some time wondering if Brunner was the real deal, or just a product of having superstar linemates.
Brunner was impressive in his first year in the NHL. Hockey DB lists him as having 12 goals and 26 points in 44 games. Not setting the league on fire by any means, but he should have easily ended up with 20 goals in a full season (stupid lockout!). He was a big help in the playoffs too, with 9 points in 14 games. He spent most of his time on the third line with Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson, giving the Wings some serious offensive depth (which would have been nice to have against Boston).
Brunner’s offensive growth should have continued the next year when he signed a two-year deal worth $5 million with the New Jersey Devils. But it didn’t. He actually performed worse than he did the previous year, with just 25 points in 60 games. There’s a number of reasons for this. First, the injuries. He missed almost a month with a knee injury and after the olympics he missed a couple games with a charlie horse (missing games with a charlie horse? really bro?). He also had a serious decrease in the quality of his linemates. He went from having a Conn Smyth winner has his center to having Dainius Zubrus. He also split time between wingers Mike Sislo and Patrik Elias. I didn’t exactly trip over myself to get him on my fantasy team.
This could lead one to believe that Brunner’s success in Detroit was more a product of his linemates than his actual talent. To which I would say “So what?”. Similar to the way Chris Kunitz was the right fit for Sidney Crosby, Brunner could have a lot of value playing with Zetterberg or Datsyuk for a few years. Daniel Alfredsson was certainly an upgrade, but if he isn’t coming back, why not go back to something that works? Damien Brunner represents the devil they know (they being the Red Wings and Mike Babcock). They know what to expect and what he’s capable of.
It’s not unrealistic to expect Brunner to be able to contribute 20 goals in a full season with the right linemates. I wish I could say the same about the shootout, however. Last year with the Devils he went 1 for 5 in shootout attempts, and with Detroit he went 2 for 7, making him 3 for 13 overall (23.07%, Thanks for nothing Tom). A few extra shootout goals would have helped Detroit immensely this year as a few extra points would have made the difference between getting in the post-season by the skin of their teeth and a potentially more favorable match up against Pittsburgh. Losing 9 games in OT in a row in November should have made shootout improvements a priority for the Wings this offseason, and if that’s where they want to go it’s likely Damien Brunner isn’t the answer.
I feel like bringing Brunner back could still help the team a lot, and for $2.5 million it’s a low-risk situation. The problem, of course, is prying him away from the Devils, who are in no situation to sacrifice offense. But if they’re frustrated with Brunner and want to get something from a player they aren’t willing to bring back next year, there’s possibilities. I’m sure a draft pick at the deadline would be worth consideration if the Wings are trying to load up a bit. If nothing else, he’s someone to keep an eye on for next off season for sure.