Simply, the New Jersey Devils are now down a forward and he's one of the good ones left. OK, please leave your comments and thoughts about Brunner and thank you for reading.
Actually, there's more to it than just that. As you all know by now, Ilya Kovalchuk "retired" earlier this week. As shocking, saddening, and enraging it all is, there is now another hole at forward. I believe that in a few years, the Devils will certainly be fine but it's bad news for 2013-14. I don't believe one player can fill this hole. That player didn't exist as an unrestricted free agent on July 5 and that player doesn't exist among the unsigned. However, the Devils can do a lot worse than sign Damien Brunner.
The Devils are at the very least interested in the Swiss forward. Tom Gulitti got a post up at Fire & Ice noting the reports out of Switzerland. The source is Nicola Berger, a writer at the Neue Luzerner Zeitung. He tweeted the following this morning:
Also, @damien_brunner appears to be headed to the #NJDevils. They're doing a lot of background work on him right now.— Nicola Berger (@BergerNeueLZ) July 13, 2013
While anything can still happen, now's a good of time as any to explain why Brunner would help out the team as it currently stands.
With Kovalchuk out, the Devils need offense and Brunner certainly produced last season with the Detroit Red Wings. According to NHL.com, Brunner finished fourth in scoring on the Red Wings with 12 goals and 14 assists in 44 regular season games. Brunner also finished third on the team in shots with 123, which is rather good for someone who averaged 15:35 per night. Based on NHL.com's ice time splits, Brunner did play a significant portion on Detroit's power play, averaging 2:58 per game in man-advantage situations. This means Brunner, in theory, could address the Devils' now-larger power play need. This also means he didn't play a lot at evens but he was quite productive when he did. In the playoffs, Brunner's even strength ice time per game dropped to just above 10, but he managed to put up 31 shots, 5 goals, and 4 assists so he was productive in spite of a drop in usage. For a first season in the NHL, this is all rather good.
The 2013 season was his first in the NHL. He was in the Swiss league, scoring a whole mess of points for EV Zug in the last four seasons. Berger covers the team so he would know what's going on with him. Detroit clearly liked what he was doing there and brought the 27-year old forward over. While Brunner did quite well considering he was jumping into the best league in the world as an already developed player, he did not re-sign with Detroit. J.J. at Winging it at Motown explained why in this even handed post. Basically, the Red Wings felt Brunner was asking for too much and feel they have someone who can take his spot and be similarly effective for less money. I can understand why Brunner wants a significant contract for multiple years; he certainly had a good 2013. However, I can understand why teams haven't initially jumped on him: he's had only one good season and it's not clear whether he's going continue to be this good or whether he was just in a good situation in Detroit.
A closer look at some of the more advanced stats suggest he was. In addition to not playing a lot of minutes at even strength, he was sheltered in terms of zone starts. Behind the Net lists his offensive zone start percentage at 59.3%. While he had a high value for competition (Corsi Rel QoC), the Detroit coaches weren't looking at Brunner to play in a lot of tough situations if they could help it. Over at his With or Without You chart at Hockey Analysis, he did play quite a lot of his 5-on-5 time with Henrik Zetterberg. While Brunner did well away from Zetterberg, I can't help but think that he was really helped along by playing with the stud forward. It brings up a very legitimate question. How good he would be in a whole season away from him.
That all said, there's still plenty to like. He's a right-handed shot. He's still got a lot of gas left in the tank at age 27. Brunner finished second in total shooting attempts at 5-on-5 with 166 also according to Hockey Analysis. Perhaps as a function of playing plenty with Zetterberg, Brunner wasn't shy about firing the puck and the Devils could certainly use more shooting even prior to the "retirement." You'll also notice he finished fourth on the team in 5-on-5 points with 14. He wasn't just reliant on special teams for points; that wouldn't be a criticism, it's a compliment for Brunner that he isn't just a specialist. Back at Behind the Net, while he only finished twelfth out of 22 forwards, Brunner had a very healthy on-ice Corsi rate and it would still be positive after adjusting for zone starts. At worst, he wouldn't be an anchor or a black hole of possession. Lastly, he's got a little dangle in him. (And before you say, see, he can be great at shootouts, he went 2-for-7 last year. You may want to dial back some shootout enthusiasm.)
In total, I see Brunner as a forward who can be productive both in terms of shots and points. As much as one would expect from a secondary winger. He's not going to be the replacement or the answer for the Devils. He'll have to be protected in some way or form. I don't think he's the sort of player who's going to face the toughest competition over and over and regularly win. Someone else would have to take big minutes unless the coaching staff truly believes Brunner can do it. But I'm fine with all that. For 2013-14, the Devils will likely to have scoring by committee; hoping that several 50-60 point type scorers (Clowe, Ryder, Henrique, Zajac) can put up enough goals regularly. Brunner would join that group as a right-handed shot playing wing and likely will get plenty of power play time if he signs. He's not a perfect signing and I do have reservations that he was a product of being in a protected situation in Detroit. But given who else is out there, Brunner would be a good signing that addresses part of the glaring need that a certain player created two days ago. It's a risk worth taking, especially now. And so the Devils would be interested in a player like him, flaws and all.
Would you want the Devils to go after and sign Damien Brunner? How much and how long would you sign him for? Do you think he would help the Devils up front? Are you concerned that he was more or less a product of being protected well in Detroit? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Brunner in the comments. Thank you for reading.