By Kyle Bauer
Welcome to a new weekly column by Kyle Bauer on various happenings in national and local sports. Normally, this column will run every Sunday, today is an exception. Agree or disagree with the author? Please comment below or let him know your thoughts by email, [email protected] or twitter, @kyle_bauer
July 1. marked the beginning of the free-agency signing period in the NHL and to Detroit Red Wings fans, it appeared to mark the beginning of a new post-Lidstrom rejuvenation in Detroit. It goes without saying Nick “The Perfect Human” Lidstrom left a crater but it also left the opportunity to aggressively drag the Wings out of what has become a stagnation period.
Wings fans (myself included) were anticipating the biggest free-agency spending spree since the 2001 Hall Of Fame monopolization, signing Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille and acquiring Dominik Hasek via trade. Since the inception of the salary cap era, Wings GM Ken Holland has been squeezed on cost. This past off-season, he had $22 million to play with. Instead of bringing in high-profile players such as Zach Parise, Ryan Suter or finding a cheaper second-tier producer like P.A. Parenteau or maybe even risking a quality draft pick and making a monster offer-sheet to future 40-goal scorer Evander Kane , Holland decided to sign a much-needed back up goalie (Jonas Gustavsson), a scrapper (Jordin Tootoo), an oft-injured defenseman who’s already injured (Carlo Colaiacovo), and a 36-year-old marginally producing (at best) forward with a chronically pulled groin (Mikael Samuelsson).
It was an off-season that had me raging, completely swearing off Holland and the Wings. A team I already believed was firmly rolling down the hill in an avalanche of ineptitude, about to become so lousy they could be routinely beaten by the (Colorado) Avalanche.
But note I didn’t mention one signing above. That signing is of course Damien Brunner.
The Swiss forward was the Wings first signing. It was a name I had been hearing about for months and with the immediate signing of Brunner, it appeared he was long pre-destined to put on the red and white.
I was not sold on this signing either. I wanted to refute it immediately. Why? No, not because of previously false-hyped Euro league imports like Fabian Brunnstrom –though last year we were certainly reminded of the risk in signing a player who long stewed overseas.
I had seen his You Tube video and what I saw was a relatively undersized forward looking very fast with great hands and vision but against lame competition. I got a little giddy but juuuuust a little. I kept thinking, what will happen when he’s in a league where the average defenseman and goalie is 6’2 and the ice is 13 and a half feet more narrow? He played in the Swiss National-A league, which is the rough equivalent to the East Coast Hockey League in total skill.
My cynicism had time to boil over during the seemingly endless lockout. Despite all the stats I kept hearing from him and future line-mate Henrik Zetterberg in the Swiss league, I wasn’t even sold he’d start the season with the Red Wings.
That cynicism may have reached an apex on January 19.; a night now synonymous for Wings fans viewing what was arguably the ugliest regular-season loss in decades. That 6-0 sloshing by the St.Louis Blues was also Brunner’s NHL debut.
His very first shift, he attempted to drag the puck through the offensive corner and I swear Blues rugged power forward David Backes nearly put the 26-year-old rookie through the boards . It was a hit that was no-doubt pre-meditated–not just a simple common occurrence in a hockey game, but a message the Blues and Backes were trying to send to the Wings new little import: This is ‘The Show’ we’re bigger, stronger, faster and unless you have a No.13 (Pavel Datsyuk) on your back, you won’t get away with the cute stuff. Brunner played timid the remained of the evening. I scoffed.
But since the night that seemed to catch the entire Wings line-up timid, Brunner has gotten away with the cute stuff and conversely has shown the ability to withstand and dish out what players like Backes and teams like the Blues will target him with.
He’s built short and stocky like Datsyuk and his hands appear to be not too far off. The following game against the insufferable Columbus Blue Jackets he did an inverted version of Datsyuk’s infamous drag move, clinching the shoot out and Detroit’s first victory. It was a moment no-doubt pivotal as pivotal gets in Columbus’ Nationwide Arena, more-so in the second game of the season. Following the shaming in St.Louis and blowing a 2-0 lead earlier in the evening, Detroit needed that win and Brunner dazzled with the dagger.
On Sunday, against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, Brunner found space inside the right face-off circle among formidable Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi, took a short pass from Zetterberg and laced one far corner past defending Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick. In the scope of an entire season–let-alone-career–it looks to be a seemingly innocuous goal, but something about how he found space against –for all intents-and-purposes– the best team in hockey, and delivered another goal on a far-side wrist shot from the right-circle said to me he’s found his comfort zone at this level of hockey. He truly belongs.
I’ve criticized Holland a lot in the past and this past off-season he nearly gave me a damn stroke. Yes, I can criticize the signings of Samuelsson and Colaiacovo–who have combined to play two and a half games so far–and all the players Holland either chose not to sign or could not negotiate with , but I surely can’t criticize Brunner as I thought I would be able to. It’s never felt so right to be wrong.
Kyle Bauer is an award winning college sports broadcaster and former Sports Director of WXOU 88.3fm, freelance journalist and radio producer who has been published in The Macomb Daily, mlive.com, Oakland Post and MIPREPZONE.com, follow him on Twitter @kyle_bauer