The Detroit Red Wings have always been a team that offers chances to those willing to work hard.
Year after year a player is given an opportunity to show the Wings what they can do, and some real success stories have been written as a result. Dan Cleary went from being known as a first-round bust to a 30-goal scorer who discovered his work ethic. Patrick Eaves could never duplicate his 20-goal rookie season in Ottawa, but in Detroit he formed one of the league's best penalty-killing duos with Darren Helm before concussions ended his season (get well soon Patrick).
Unfortunately, not every player has panned out. Ville Leino was an undrafted free agent out of Finland who tore up SM-liiga before signing a deal with Detroit in the spring of 2008. After a strong finish to the 2009 season, he struggled in 2010 and was traded to the Flyers for very little in return. Fabian Brunnstrom was another player the Wings coveted, but he opted to begin his NHL career in Dallas before signing with the Wings last year. He could not crack the regular lineup and was waived early last season.
However, the Wings continue to believe that talent is talent, and have once again signed a player who may or may not have an impact on the team.
Damien Brunner is a small Swiss forward who last year led the Swiss National League in scoring and had 57 points in only 33 games so far this year. Listed at 5'11" and 187 lbs, Eliteprospects describes him as:
A slick offensive forward who can shoot as well as pass the puck. Has great wheels and hands. Plays a gritty game.
Now I'll be the first to admit that I have not seen Brunner play a single minute of hockey, so I'm in no position to say whether he's going to be a contributor or not. But Mike Babcock came out and said yesterday that Brunner will get a chance to show what he can do when he gets put on a line with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
Brunner and Zetterberg together should be familiar to those that followed the stats of Wing players that went overseas. Those two were put on the same line in Switzerland and formed an immediate bond. Zetterberg's 32 points in 23 games was a lower PPG pace than Brunner was on, but it's not hard to imagine that having a player of Zetterberg's caliber on his line boosted Brunner's production.
Will that translate over to the NHL? One thing that Brunner will face if he's playing with Datsyuk and Zetterberg is the opponents' best defenders night in and night out. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are two of the best in the league, and with that comes the obligation to face off against the top defensemen in the best hockey league in the world. They have shown countless times that they are up to the task, but is Brunner?
Playing against the likes of Shea Weber, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook is a far cry from whoever the best defensemen in the Swiss National League are, and the comparison is not even close. At his size, Brunner would appear to be someone who could be pushed around by bigger players, especially in front of the net, which is where I would expect to see him.
One thing to remember is that Brunner is on a one-year deal and will again be an unrestricted free agent once the season is over. This is his shot at proving that not only can he play in the NHL, but that he can be a guy who can put up points and be counted on to help carry a team's offense. At his age (26) and relative cost, a decent season could cause some teams to come calling in the offseason with a multi-year deal that would pay him fairly well, certainly more than what he could make in Switzerland.
Will that motivate Brunner to be better? I don't know the man, but money is a pretty powerful motivator. It's something that I hope gets Valtteri Filppula and Cleary to have good seasons. There are two things that come with being an everyday player in the NHL: the knowledge that they are playing in the best league against the best players, and the opportunity to earn a lot more money than they would playing almost anywhere else.
Ultimately, I'm watching Brunner with a critical yet cautious eye. We've been down this road before, and we've been burned by heaping a lot of expectations on a guy who was passed over in every single draft and years after. Sometimes there's a reason why a player isn't "discovered" until he's over 25. In Brunner's case, I hope it's because it took him this long to develop into a world-class hockey player and the Wings are about to reap the benefits.