By Stu Hackel
It was a great night of baseball on Wednesday, historic even, and that interrupted some of our preseason NHL viewing. Truth be told, however, as all hockey fans know, the kind of twisting, turning plotlines and wonderful dramatic endings that unfolded on the diamonds to decide the AL and NL wild card races -- while rare in other sports -- happens almost every spring in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But we're a whole season away from that. The NHL action we caught last night updated us on a couple of pretty interesting sagas, those of Jonas Hiller and Fabian Brunnstrom (in addition to ongoing litany of potentially suspendable incidents, the newest being B. Smith on B. Smith, which is worthy of a match penalty -- video here).
Jonas Hiller, of course, is one of the game's top goaltenders. His excellent first half play last season was the equal of Tim Thomas' performance, which everyone tends to forget because Thomas kept it up in the second half while Hiller was shelved by a mysterious bout of vertigo and played in only three of the Ducks' last 30 games, and only 11 minutes each in two of his appearances.
"They definitely concluded it was not a concussion and that there were problems with balance and the things going on in my inner ear were out of sync with my body," Hiller said last week (quoted by Tony Gallagher of The Vancouver Province). "They were that way for a while and I had the problems and their explanation was that it would simply take some time for my body to repair the situation. But no, they don't know what caused it."
Hiller spent some time back home in Switzerland, in the comfort of family and friends, and didn't train for a while. The symptoms subsided, then he went to goalie guru Francois Allaire's netminding camp over the summer and started practicing with the Swiss national team at his own pace. But not knowing what caused the problem is a problem itself, because Hiller has no idea what he should and shouldn't do to prevent a reoccurrence. Diet, fatigue and all manner of possible triggers have been investigated, yet he and the Ducks are pretty much going forward with little to guide them and lots of hope that whatever the cause was, it has left his body.
What is clear is that Hiller doesn't seem to have lost anything when it comes to stopping pucks. Last weekend, he played 40 shutout minutes, stopping all 21 shots taken by the Canucks (who admittedly weren't icing their best team) and looked like his old self:
On Wednesday night in Anaheim, (with the Canucks playing most of their top players, including the Sedins and Alex Burrows), we watched Hiller's terrific third period in which he preserved a 3-2 Ducks win by turning back all 18 Vancouver shots. That gave him 31 saves on 33 shots for the game. He was most impressive in the last minute, with Anaheim killing off a 6-on-3 with two men in the box and Vancouver going with an extra attacker. Hiller was his usual, smooth efficient self, unrattled and in position to keep the Canucks at bay.
For the moment, at least, the guy with the unadorned flat black mask is back. As long as he is, the Ducks have a chance to be a big force in the West.
Now to Brunnstrom, who once upon a time, long ago in the spring of 2008, was a highly coveted undrafted free agent. A 23-year-old late-bloomer with good hands, good size, fast feet and an immense amount of buzz surrounding him, he played only one season in the Swedish Elite League after a boffo year at a lower level. His hype appeared to be like that given the late-50s music sensation Fabian Forte (who went by the name of Fabian -- just Fabian), a post-Elvis faux-rock 'n' roller of dubious talent and a few minor hits in his very brief career.
James Duthie of TSN called the skating Fabian "the first internet-created hockey legend." Few had ever seen him play. He gave almost no interviews to the North American media. Nevertheless, he and his representatives seduced at least half the league. He toured a few NHL cities to find the best situation. The Canucks were considered the front-runners until GM Dave Nonis was fired. Some in the Toronto media reported that Brunnstrom was leaning toward the Maple Leafs, even after Fabian didn't stop in T.O. on his tour. At the time, the Leafs didn't have a full-time GM or a coach. Four Swedish-born Red Wings phoned to get him to Detroit.
"In many respects, it seems as though Brunnstrom has gone from unknown (and, therefore, underrated) to overrated simply through the nature of this process," wrote Scott Cullen of TSN, who ventured a statistical analysis to determine how well Fabian would do in the NHL ( and he figured nine goals and 27 points.). "As more and more people -- and NHL teams -- got interested, Brunnstrom's market value increased, even though he's still the same player who has yet to play in North America or for Sweden in international competition.
"This International Man of Mystery is tough to project because he has such a gap in his playing history and all we have is a few frames of YouTube video along with some hearsay evidence on which to base the evaluation."
Brunnstrom finally settled on Dallas, where he got a big signing bonus, gave interviews and, after a hat trick in his first NHL game, was seen playing inconsistently and on the perimeter as a rookie, totalling 17 goals and 12 assists and going minus-8 while not really totally absorbing the defensive part of the game that coach Dave Tippett preached. He fared worse under Marc Crawford, playing only 44 games in his second season, and a few in the AHL, with microscopic numbers. Last season was split between AHL affiliates for Dallas and Toronto, who finally got their man, only to let his deal expire.
Now 26 and looking for work this summer, Brunnstrom approached the Red Wings, who offered him no contract and no guarantees but a chance to try out. He told them he now knows what it takes to make it in the NHL and said he would just be happy to be part of Detroit's organization, even if that meant playing in the AHL.
Well, Fabian Brunnstrom has been something of a surprise for the Red Wings so far. He played well during scrimmages and, after he scored the Wings' only goal in their preseason loss last week to the Flyers, coach Mike Babcock said, "He skates better than I expected. He hangs on to the puck and makes some plays. I thought he was our best forward."
Brunnstrom has now scored three goals in four games, including a pair on Wednesday night against the Blackhawks, in which he showed no hesitation about going to the net on the power play for the first one...
...and displayed his quick hands in front to pot the second one.
And he's been fine defensively so far, sporting a plus-1 rating.
UPDATE: Helene St. James of The Detroit Free Press quotes Wings GM Ken Holland saying, ""Right now, he looks like he's playing his way into a contract. We'll determine if he's played his way onto the roster. There's no rush to do anything now, so we'll address the situation on Monday. But he has stated a pretty darn good case for a contract and for the roster, especially considering the injury to Jan Mursak."
With Mursak, another Detroit hopeful, having gone down with a knee injury, the door may be opened for Brunnstrom to get back to the NHL this fall. "This is where I want to play," he said as training camp began, "and I don't want to give up that dream."