Coming into the lockout shortened season the Red Wings had a ton of question marks. One of them was where Swiss league star Damien Brunner would fit in with this team. There was a ton of speculation about whether he'd be given a real chance to succeed or he'd be treated like previous newcomers in the organization.
We had heard about the kid's talent when Ken Holland signed him in the summer. Mike Babcock was the one pushing for him to become a Red Wing. Even with all that news we were skeptical if he'd be given a real chance or if he'd be sent to Grand Rapids to play with the Griffins while retreads like Mikael Samuelsson were given top six minutes instead. But the lockout ended and Babcock said Brunner would be starting the season on the wing with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. When it comes to having an opportunity to succeed there really isn't a better one than that.
The reunion of the Euro Twins did not last long, but it didn't mean the 26-year-old wouldn't succeed. Brunner still received top six minutes on this team and has, thus far, proven he belongs on this team and in the NHL. Statistically, Brunner sits tied for 4th on the team along side Johan Franzen with nine points. It's not the 1.72 points per game pace he was putting up next to Zetterberg in the Swiss National League A with EV Zug, but nine points in your first 12 games in the NHL is pretty darn solid. Plus, he leads the team in goals with 6. Which brings us to the big question.
Is it time for the Red Wings to sign Brunner to a contract extension?
The answer is high risk/high reward. How much do you sign him for? How long? Is this the real Brunner or just a hot start? We don't know if he'll continue at this pace or fizzle out as the NHL grind catches up to him. If you don't sign him now he could continue to play well and score goals and then his contract demands could become even higher. Other teams will take notice and when he hits unrestricted free agency, well, someone is going to throw the big bucks at him.
Let's take a look at a recent European star as a potential comparable. Everyone's former favorite whipping boy, Ville Leino. When the King of the Leino Lounge first signed with the Wings he was sent to the AHL. That was back in 2008-09 when the team was stacked with talent so it was incredibly hard for Leino to crack the regular season roster. Remember, Darren Helm only played 16 games with the Wings in the regular season that year. Leino did get a chance at the end of the season though, and if my memory is correct, he played with the likes of Datsyuk and Zetterberg.
What did the then 25-year-old do? He put up nine points in 13 games. Eerily similar to what Brunner has done so far. Leino did register two assists in seven playoff games as well, but saw his time with top six talent evaporate. Detroit ended up signing him to a 2 year deal worth 800k per season. He fizzled out the next year putting up seven points in 42 games in bottom six minutes. Leino was traded to the Flyers to make room on the roster for returning players. He then went on to set the NHL rookie record for points in a postseason with 21 in 19 games for Philly. Leino played alongside Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere as Philly went to the Stanley Cup Final. Leino would put up 53 points in 81 games the next season and go on to sign a six year, $27 million deal with the Sabres. He's struggled to find his previous point production putting only 25 points in 71 games in his first season in Buffalo. Leino has yet to play this year due to a hip injury.
It seems that Detroit may have learned a bit of a lesson there. If you have a star European player that fits a top six role, you need to play him in that role for him to succeed. The Wings are doing that with Brunner. He continues to play alongside Zetterberg and has seen plenty of time on the power play. He's given every chance to shine as a goal scorer.
It's a tough question whether to re-sign him now to an extension or not. Brunner currently makes $1.35 million. Would a two year deal worth $2.5 million per season get the deal done? If you sign him now, how much do you reward him for his early success and continued potential? With that lack of goal scoring talent on this team, the Red Wings might not be able to afford to lose him in the offseason. If it comes down to Brunner or Valtteri Filppula, who do you re-sign? And will he become a mediocre player once he gets paid big money like Leino did? There are a lot of questions to ask and hopefully Red Wings management knows the correct answers. They may have struck gold with Brunner, don't blow it.