Betting on Brunner; High hopes for Hawks

No doubt Damien Brunner is one hot name in fantasy hockey league drafts this week with news that he’s slated to begin the season on the top line for the Detroit Red Wings with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

The Swiss star has yet to play an NHL game, but the hype surrounding his arrival on this side of the ocean is inescapable.

It might have something to do with putting up 25 goals and 57 points in just 33 games in the Swiss league during the lockout.

Still, given that he’s 26 years old and has never been drafted by an NHL team, there are some skeptics out there as well.

There’s only one way to find out: See how he does when the NHL season begins this weekend.

"He has good quickness and finish -- that talent level should translate well here unless he can't get to the areas on the ice where his talents can flourish," a pro scout from a rival NHL team told ESPN.com Tuesday.

Listed at 5-foot-10 and 176 pounds, Brunner will need to fight through heavier traffic in a smaller rink to get to the scoring areas.

“He's obviously a goal-scorer, but he's got more qualities than that,” Zetterberg told NHL.com this week. “He's a good skater, sees the ice very well and he wants to win. That's a good quality to have."

Brunner caught the Wings’ attention last season en route to winning the Swiss league scoring title with 60 points (24 goals-36 assists) in 45 games.

Former Red Wing Stacy Roest, who was still playing in the Swiss League last season, kept emailing Wings GM Ken Holland about Brunner. Roest and Holland both summer on the same lake in Vernon, British Columbia.

"Stacy felt Brunner would be a guy he thought that could make the jump from the Swiss League to the NHL," Holland told ESPN.com this week.

Once the Wings were eliminated by Nashville in the first round last spring, Holland and coach Mike Babcock headed overseas to the world hockey championship to watch Brunner play for Switzerland.

"We liked him," Holland said. "So we made him an offer. I know there were other teams involved, but he ultimately signed with us."

Brunner’s agent, Neil Sheehy, said there were five NHL teams seriously in the bidding for his client, "but Detroit was the best fit for Damien," he told ESPN.com Tuesday.

Then came the NHL lockout. Silver lining? Brunner and Zetterberg become linemates for Zug of the Swiss league this season.

"It couldn’t have worked out any better for us during the work stoppage that Henrik Zetterberg went over to play with him, and they obviously found great chemistry over there," Holland said. "He’s got nothing more to prove in Switzerland, he led the league in scoring last year, and he looks to have led them in scoring this year [had he stayed]. He’s a good skater, really quick, knows where to go to score, he has a quick release, thinks the game at a high level. Obviously, the question is, at 5-10, 5-11, on a smaller rink with less space, can he still find ways to get open and create scoring chances? We’re going to give him every opportunity."

Brunner, by the way, isn’t eligible for the Calder Trophy. He turned 26 last March. Under NHL rules, a player can’t have turned 26 by Sept. 15 of his first NHL season to be eligible.

Blackhawks rested and ready

The Chicago Blackhawks made very few roster changes in the offseason other than adding defensemen Michal Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank.

Otherwise, it’s largely the same team that returns, and I’m one who believes that in this short season with a short camp, NHL clubs with the smallest amount of roster turnover will get off to better starts. Especially a talented team like Chicago.

"It’s funny because everyone around here was up in arms last summer, why we didn’t make all these changes, not that we listen to that stuff anyway,” Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman told ESPN.com Monday. "But we had 101 points last season and, while our playoff performance was below expectation, you don’t want to overreact."

No new system to learn; these players are used to each other. No adjustment period.

I like the Hawks’ chances of getting off to a flying start.

Having star forwards Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa both in perfect health also helps, of course. Toews returned in time for the playoffs after missing time with a concussion, but he wasn’t quite the same. Hossa got decked by a brutal hit from Raffi Torres in Game 3 of the playoffs and needed months to recover from that concussion. The rest did him well.

"Marian’s probably never been this healthy if you think about all the hockey he played with Pittsburgh, Detroit and with us with all those Cup runs (2008 through 2010),” Bowman said. "He had an extended period to get himself strong and completely healed. He’s feeling better than ever. Same thing with Jonathan. They’re your key guys. You have to have your top guys rested and healthy. And we are, we’re totally healthy heading into the season and that gives us reason for optimism."

The question mark in Chicago remains in goal after Corey Crawford struggled last season. Much is riding on how he rebounds. Two years ago, Crawford was sensational late in the season in helping Chicago get into the playoffs and nearly stole a first-round series upset win over Vancouver with a magnificent performance.

"It’s the tale of two seasons with him, and this season will show us which of those was accurate," Bowman said. "You go back to two years ago, at the end of that season, I think any team would have been excited to try and acquire Corey because of the way he played. He was great down the stretch. Was that a fluke? I guess it’s possible, but not likely it was a fluke. You don’t lose your skills in five months. But it’s a whole different dynamic when you come in expected to do well. Your mentality changes. He didn’t play badly last year, I wouldn’t say he was great but he was steady."

It’s pretty simple. If Crawford rebounds, the Hawks are once again big Cup contenders.

"Corey needs to rebound and we think he will," Bowman said. "Time will tell if we’re right or we’re wrong."

Don't doubt Duchene

If you’re looking for a candidate to have a bounce-back year, I’d peg Matt Duchene in Colorado.

After putting up 55 points (24 goals-31 assists) in his rookie campaign in 2009-10 and following that up with 67 points (27 goals-40 assists) in 2010-11, the young forward slumped to 28 points (14 goals-14 assists) last season, albeit in 58 games. But whether it was part of the maturity process and learning how to be a consistent pro, Duchene got a bit of tough love last season from coach Joe Sacco as his ice time and role diminished at times.

But that’s in the past.

"I expect a response year from Matt, no question," Sacco told ESPN.com Monday. "His first couple of years in the NHL were pretty good. And then last year, he kind of got off track and got away from his game a little bit. We had some situations where I felt he wasn’t playing the way he should be playing, so his ice time went down. But it’s a fresh start for Matt."

Sacco sees a reenergized, refocused Duchene, who turns 22 on Wednesday.

"I think he’s really redefinied himself as far as committing himself to getting in really good shape, taking the opportunity to playing overseas in Sweden (during the lockout) -- that was real important for him to reestablish his game," Sacco said. "I felt he needed that. This is a new beginning for him. He’s an important player for us. When he’s playing the way he’s capable of playing, that certainly should help our team offensively. I know he’s excited right now."

Duchene has started camp playing between captain Gabriel Landeskog and newly acquired winger P.A. Parenteau.

"They’ve looked good the first few days," Sacco said.

On the second line, Sacco has Paul Stastny between Jamie McGinn and David Jones.

"That was one our better lines last year, probably our best line down the stretch, so we kept that line intact," Sacco said.

The third line is John Mitchell between Steve Downie and Milan Hejduk; a unit with some pretty good offense.

"I guess it’s not your typical third line," Sacco said. "Downs’ plays an energetic, in-your-face type of game but also can bring some skill to it as well. Obviously, Milan is a good goal scorer and can make plays. And John Mitchell has looked good in camp. He’s fit in well there."

Of course, at some point last season’s leading scorer Ryan O'Reilly, a huge heart-and-soul guy on this team, will finally sign and return to the Avs. The NHL club and his representatives from Newport Sports continue to negotiate. Once O’Reilly is back, whenever that is, that will somewhat change a line or two above.

But that doesn’t change my point on Duchene: I think he’s in for a big offensive year.

Sens' depleted blue line

The season-ending injury to Jared Cowen and the broken finger to Mike Lundin have left the Senators thin on defense to start the season.

Senators GM Bryan Murray wants to see how AHL call-ups Patrick Wiercioch, Mark Borowiecki and Andre Benoit do in camp this week before deciding whether or not he needs to go out and acquire help.

"It will be at the end of the week at the earliest if we try to do anything," Murray told ESPN.com Monday.

The Senators have good depth at the forward position throughout the organization, so if they make a trade for a defenseman, that’s where the asset would come from. The Sens could also wait and see who goes on waivers from other NHL clubs over the next week.