The Dallas Stars entered the 2008-09 season with high expectations after a long playoff run last season, but major injuries to their line-up resulted in 372 man-games lost as well as missing the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s history since 2002.
A microcosm of Dallas’ struggles was rookie winger Fabian Brunnstrom. The free agent from Sweden also entered the season with high expectations at age 23. After scoring a hat trick in his NHL debut, the Jonstorp, Sweden native saw his point production drop as he struggled to make the adjustment to the NHL and life on a new continent.
According to Dallas Stars Co-General Manager Les Jackson, the struggle to adjust was typical of that of most first-year players.
"The first year is really a tough year," said Jackson, "and for him to come from Europe to here it was a big adjustment cause of the ice, the lifestyle and all that. I don’t think anyone has questioned the talent, it’s just a matter of him getting the experience and the time, but he’s got real good skill and I suspect that we’ll see [his] best next year."
Not surprisingly, Jackson feels that the team’s struggles with injuries may have contributed to Brunnstrom’s difficulty in adjusting to the North American game.
"I think it’s hard when your best players are hurt or not playing — it’s hard for the young guys because you get stretched out and they get put in situations that they’re not capable of handling," Jackson said.
Ultimately, Brunnstrom made the adjustment and began to heat up just as the Stars season began to wind down, scoring four goals in his last five games and finishing the season with 17 goals and 29 points in 55 games.
"He’s found a new level of confidence," said Jackson, "the coaches trust him a little more. There are some details in the game that in our own end that he needs to work on — that’s because of the new ice, new game. He looks like he picked up that part of the game so I think it looks good for him in the future."
Brunnstrom himself agreed with Jackson that his late-season surge had him hopeful for next season.
"Of course it felt a little bit better the last couple of games here," stated Brunnstrom. "It’s been a tough season. It’s been a lot of ups and downs and I was injured but at the end of the season I felt better. Of course I’m sad that we’re not in the playoffs but we have to look forward to next season and start from there."
His 29 points this season were not far off from the 37 points he scored in his lone season in the Swedish Elite League. Still Stars Head Coach Dave Tippett believes there is room for improvement.
"He’s obviously a very talented player," said Tippett. "When you come over to a new culture, there’s a lot of things he had to learn this year. Hopefully he’s learned some good lessons. He has a great deal of upside with our organization., but the one thing he’s going to have to learn to be an NHL player is consistency and that’s a lot of times young players have to figure that out."
And when next season does start, the Stars may have an edge. The team had seven rookies make their debut this season and many second-year players saw increased playing time and responsibility as a result of injuries. This extra playing time and increased roles gave many young players a chance to develop and Brunnstrom believes that will translate into success next season.
"We’re a young team," said Brunnstrom. "It was a rough start for the whole team and of course lots of expectations from last season, but lots of young guys have taken a huge step forward and we are looking forward to next season and starting there to get better."
"What has happened because of our injuries," Tippett continued, "we’ve had to play a lot of young players in a lot of very tough situations and I think some of them have fast tracked. Some of those players have really got some great experience this year so they’ll put that in the bank and they’ll come back next year and they’ll have to become even better players. If we want to improve as a team, each individual has to get better. A lot of our young players got a lot more experience than maybe we anticipated hopefully that helps them moving forward."
Stars captain Mike Modano who is rumored to be contemplating retirement was hopeful with the play of the young players but believes the road to becoming a consistent NHL player for these prospects is a long one.
"Well, there is some hope and some bright spots as far as the youth guys coming in," said Modano. "There is still a lot of work to do with them to the point where they’re consistent and very effective and being a consistent player year in and year out. They’re in the right direction and it’s just a matter of doing it every year which is very tough at this level and at this game but there’s a lot of time to accomplish that for them."