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With Andrei Kuzmenko’s signing, remembering the Fabian Brunnström hype

Looking back to the last time the Canucks signed the top undrafted free agent on the market. Well, sort of.
Fabian Brunnstrom and Pavel Datsyuk
Dallas Stars forward Fabian Brunnström holds off Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings.

The Vancouver Canucks got their man.

Well, they got a commitment from their man that in three weeks' time he will actually be their man, but close enough. Andrei Kuzmenko, the biggest name among the undrafted free agents on the market this year, has committed to playing for the Canucks.  

At times like this, it’s easy for the hype train to not only leave the station but go right off the rails. 

Kuzmenko put up 53 points in 45 games last season in the KHL, which just happens to be very similar to the points per game put up by Artemi Panarin and Kirill Kaprizov in their final seasons in the KHL before coming to North America and becoming NHL stars. Just ignore that Panarin and Kaprizov were several years younger than Kuzmenko at the time and it’s easy to get carried away.

It brings to mind the last time the Canucks signed the best undrafted free agent on the market: Fabian Brunnström. 

Well, sort of. 

"Canucks sign highly touted Swede"

The year was 2008 and Brunnström was the hottest commodity on the undrafted free agent market — a player that had slipped through the cracks of the NHL entry draft with supposed first-line potential. He even was compared to a young Daniel Alfredsson, who similarly played Division 1 hockey in Sweden and went undrafted until he was 21 and had already established himself in the Swedish Elite League.

With that parallel in place and the ability to sign Brunnström without spending a draft pick, unlike Alfredsson before him, Brunnströmania hit the NHL. It seemed like every team wanted Brunnström and, according to multiple sources, the Canucks were going to win the Brunnström sweepstakes.

One of those sources was the Canucks’ own website, which wrote that they actually did sign Brunnström in an article dated April 10, 2008, with the headline “Canucks sign highly touted Swede.”

“With Thursday’s signing of 23-year-old Brunnstrom, the Canucks added what most hockey experts consider a blue-chip offensive talent, without spending so much as a seventh-round draft pick,” read the article, now only attributed to “Staff Writer.”

It wasn't until two days later, April 12, that insiders like Darren Dreger and Scott Morrison started reporting that the Canucks were the frontrunners to sign Brunnström.

It would have made all sorts of sense for the Canucks to sign Brunnström. The team was searching for someone to play with the Sedins — Alex Burrows wouldn’t join them for another year — and Brunnström fit the type of player that people thought they needed: a right winger with size and skill, who could theoretically create space for the twins. And he was Swedish to boot. 

Canucks scout Lars Lindgren even compared him to one of the team’s previous attempts to find a linemate for the Sedins: Taylor Pyatt.

“He’s got great puck control, he’s a great skater and he has size,” said Lindgren in that ill-fated article on the Canucks website. “How would I compare him? He’s a mix between Pyatt and [Brendan] Morrison.”

But Brunnström never played with the Sedins or for the Canucks at all. Four days after the Canucks website reported that Brunnström was signed, the Canucks fired general manager Dave Nonis. Brunnström subsequently toured multiple other NHL cities and eventually signed with the Dallas Stars.

Perhaps that article was never meant to see the light of day or was pre-written with the understanding that a deal was about to be signed. Maybe even being able to access it now is some sort of glitch in the Canucks' website.

But it seems pretty clear that the timing of Nonis’s firing put the kibosh on the Canucks signing Brunnström. Nonis had pushed hard to sign Brunnström, even traveling to Sweden multiple times to “woo the young forward," according to the article.

A few months later, new Canucks general manager Mike Gillis traded for his own power forward right wing with hopes he’d play with the Sedins: Steve Bernier. There’s a rabbit hole to go down here: if the Canucks sign Brunnström, perhaps they never trade for Bernier, who was a piece of the trade for Keith Ballard a couple of years later. But let’s not get too sidetracked.

A flash-in-the-pan hat trick

If Canucks fans were perturbed about missing out on Brunnström, they had cause to get even saltier when Brunnström made his debut for the Stars. If the hype wasn’t already out of control, it certainly got that way after Brunnström scored a hat trick in his very first NHL game. 

For a moment, it seemed like the Canucks had lost not just a quality player but a true star, all because they couldn’t wait until the ink was dry on Brunnström’s contract before firing Dave Nonis.

But only for a moment.

That hattrick was the peak of Brunnström’s career. He finished his rookie season with 17 goals and 29 points in 55 games, which is perfectly respectable, but couldn’t build on that modest success. The following season, he had just 11 points in 44 games and found himself in the AHL at times.  

Brunnström spent the entirety of his third season in North America in the AHL, first with the Texas Stars, then the Toronto Marlies after a midseason trade. He would play just five more NHL games, all with the Detroit Red Wings after making the team on a professional tryout at training camp. After that season, Brunnström returned to Sweden.

At the end of all the hype, Brunnström’s NHL career ended after 104 games, scoring 19 goals and 41 points.

"The bar went up too high. It was too much to handle."

Brunnström’s story is a cautionary tale about overhyping players who have yet to prove themselves against NHL competition. For every undrafted free agent who goes on to become a star, there are dozens that struggle to even become NHL regulars.

In fact, the hype might have ultimately done more bad than good.

“In one way, I’m very, very happy of the hat trick game, of course,” said Brunnström to the Dallas News, reflecting on his all-too-brief time in the NHL. “It’s the peak of my career and the highlight. It stands out. In a way, it was just adding to the already-big hype about me. The bar went up too high. It was too much to handle already even before that.”

There was no way for Brunnström to live up to that hype, particularly after a coaching change in Dallas, with Marc Crawford’s highly-critical style doing further damage to his confidence.

“At that time, I had a hard time handling the kind of coaching that Marc Crawford, the kind of coach he was,” said Brunnström. “That’s one of the things today, I’m a little bit older, maybe a little bit wiser, so now maybe I could’ve handled it better just shaking things off a little bit. 

“I remember I completely lost confidence there, didn’t play good, couldn’t find my game. I’m only blaming myself, but it wasn’t a good fit for me.”

Keeping hype in check for Kuzmenko

With all of that in mind, what does this mean for the Canucks and Kuzmenko?

Every player is different and Kuzmenko is a very different player from Brunnström. Kuzmenko finished second in points in the KHL with 20 goals and 53 points in 45 games, while Brunnström was 24th in scoring in the SEL with 9 goals and 37 points in 54 games, albeit at the age of 22 compared to Kuzmenko at 25.

Kuzmenko’s game also seems more translatable to the NHL, with his heady transition game and variety of ways to create scoring chances, whether he’s finding openings off the rush, spinning off checks to drive the net, or setting up teammates from behind the net. Kuzmenko may well be able to step directly into the Canucks’ top-six and be an impact player.

But until Kuzmenko proves that at the NHL level, expectations — and hype — should be kept in check.

It’s not just about Brunnström, of course. Other KHL stars in recent years have come to the NHL and struggled to translate their games. 

Nikita Gusev was dominant in the KHL, with 82 points in 62 games the year before signing with the New Jersey Devils. He had 44 points in 66 games in his first season, but then struggled the next season. He was waived, his contract was terminated, and he signed with the Florida Panthers to end the season, but he couldn’t even get an NHL contract the following year and went back to Russia. 

He lasted longer than Vadim Shipachyov, who finished first in the KHL in scoring this past season, just ahead of Kuzmenko. Shipachyov signed with the Vegas Golden Knights but played just three games. The Golden Knights tried to send him to the AHL, he refused to go, and he was suspended and waived, his contract was terminated, and he bolted back to the KHL.

It was a complicated situation but Shipachyov ultimately felt he had been misled. It seems he was told he would not have to play in the AHL before he signed — his first contract included a no-movement clause that would have prevented him getting sent to the AHL but his entry-level contract wasn’t eligible for such a clause. The contract had to be voided by the NHL and re-submitted.

Shipachyov said his time with the Golden Knights was “like a terrible dream.”

Hopefully, things will go much better for Kuzmenko in Vancouver. In terms of on-ice expectations, if Kuzmenko can even be an everyday contributor in the lineup, that will be a win for the Canucks with him on a cheap, entry-level contract. If he can do more than just play but be an impact player in the top-six, that’s a bonus.

So, Vancouver, tinge your optimism with caution. Welcome Kuzmenko and cheer for him but don’t get down on him if he needs some time to adjust to the NHL game.

And maybe let the Kuzmenko hype train pass you by and board the slower Kuzmenko hype bus, which has more stops available where you can get off if things get out of hand.

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