The NHL hasn't even completed round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and already, the outlook for the 6 Canadian hockey teams is rapidly changing.
Edmonton is in the midst of a youth revival, Vancouver fired the man who brought (arguably) the best goaltender in the league right now, Ottawa has become a Goliath in decline, Montreal has secretly become the new Northeast powerhouse, Calgary is starting to show signs of promise that could get them back to the Cup finals like in 03/04, and Toronto...well, Toronto I guess is kind of the exception to that statement.
But, not for nothing, they did relieve embattled GM John Ferguson Jr. of his post, which can very easily be construed as a step in the right direction, and accumulated some draft picks (2nd, 3rd and 4th rounds to be exact from the deals for Hal Gill, Chad Kilger and Wade Belak respectively). And, on top of that, they hold the 7th overall pick in a respectable draft year, that, based on preliminary rankings, could line them up for either gritty Kelowna defenseman Luke Schenn, or Boston U point per game centre Colin Wilson, or creatively skilled Kitchener Rangers centre Mikkel Boedker.
Although the Leafs lost out in the Steven Stamkos sweepstakes, it appears that fate has put them front and center for what is, in this writers opinion, a far more lucrative sweepstakes.
This would be the Fabian Brunnstrom sweepstakes.
But who is this Fabian Brunnstrom you might ask, why is that name familiar? How is he more important than highly touted CHL grad Stamkos?
Brunnstrom can best be decribed as a 'late bloomer' who's pre-blossoming stock value was so low, he wasn't even drafted, falling victim to the classic wait-and-see approach taken by NHL GM's in regards to European prospects.
So what makes him so special?
Well, aside from the fact he has raw talent comparable to Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin at his age (23), Brunnstrom has established himself as one of the fastest and smartest players in the Swedish Elite League with Farjestad after a phenomenal season in Sweden's First Division earned him a contract with a big club.
At 6 foot 1 inch, 195 pounds, he is not the biggest guy on the ice, but he is far from the smallest. His skill and stature have drawn comparisons to Evgeni Malkin from international critics, and he has earned himself the title of 'The best player not in the NHL right now'.
So his numbers must be phenomenal right?
He completed the 2007/2008 season with 9 goals and 28 assists through 54 games, and 16 PIM's.
So why the buzz?
The Brunnstrom oversight can be attributed to what I like to call "The CHL effect". This occurs when scouts and GM's only get excited over inflated numbers from CHL players. Crosby's last 2 years in Rimouski saw him net 135 (54g,81a) and 168 (66g, 102a) points, promising Anaheim youngster Corey Perrey had 113 and 130 points respectively in his last 2 seasons of junior with the London Knights and is only now starting to blossom into a premier top 6 forward in the NHL.
In comparison to these phenomenal numbers, let's look at another players numbers from the Russian Elite League, through 4 years with his hometown Moscow, he accumulated only 69 points (36g,33a) through 151 games. In fact, his highest scoring totals happened in his last 2 years, where he scored 13 goals each year.
That player was Alexander Ovechkin.
Evgeni Malkin managed a point a game in his last season with Magnitogorsk Mettalurg, but his previous 2 seasons saw him best himself at 12 goals.
Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuks statistics were so unimpressive that they were picked 7th and 6th round respectively by the Detroit Red Wings, Daniel Alfredsson was chosen 133rd overall by the Ottawa Senators in 1994, Dominik Hasek was a 10th round pick by Chicago in the 1983 draft, and he wasn't even given a chance to play regularly in the NHL until Buffalo traded Stephane Beauregard and a 4th round pick for him in 1992.
How much buzz was there around Brunnstrom this past year? Enough that 20 NHL teams contacted his agent JP Barry to express their interest in his services. In fact, there is so much interest that Brunnstrom himself has the luxury of choosing his team, and has told his agent, the teams he would most prefer to play for are Vancouver, Detroit and Toronto.
Not bad for a kid who wasn't drafted.
But where does fate come into play for the Leafs in this?
Well, prior to his bewildering firing by Canucks ownership last week, Dave Nonis was "deep in negotiation with Brunnstrom and Barry", and indications were that an unofficial announcement could have been made to inform the other 19 teams not to bother asking about him within the next few weeks.
Now, as the man who was instrumental in forging this deal no longer is employed with the Canucks, this casts an even bigger shadow over the stability of the Vancouver organization now that rumours of Luongo's unhappiness with the Canucks are circulating, and the future of Markus Naslund with the organization is in question. The Brunnstrom camp find themselves standing on the dancefloor without a partner, and rest assured, they came to waltz.
This leaves the other two front runners, Detroit and Toronto.
But why is Toronto the front runner when Detroit is a playoff contender with Cup wins that have occurred in Brunnstrom's lifetime?
Between the Wings and the Leafs, both teams have very strong Swedish presence, which was the factor he used in naming his top 3. However, Detroit has proven scorers Datsyuk and Zetterberg, solid second liners Samuellsson and Holmstrom and budding prospects Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula. Right there, those are an easy top 6 players, and that's not even factoring in the inevitable summer free agent acquisitions or burgeoning Daniel Cleary.
Realistically, there's no place for him to go, and if he's travelling halfway across the world to play in the NHL, he's not coming to be a 4th liner.
Enter Toronto, an offense starved team that will be looking to rebuild this summer with a new GM and a new look. Toronto has Mats Sundin, who after one of his strongest seasons last year appears to be fully able to play at least one more year for the blue and white. Add to that youngster Alex Steen, whose father Thomas is one of the most respected players in Swedish hockey, as well as Staffan Kronwall making up the Swedish contingent, and Jiri Tlusty, Kyle Wellwood, Matt Stajan and Simon Gamache (who is still under contract despite signing with SC Bern for the remainder of the 07/08) offering a bright future outlook. In addition, proven performers and assumed building blocks Vesa Toskala and Tomas Kaberle, show that the Leafs have nowhere to go but up.
They can offer him ice time and exposure to the NHL, and in return, he can offer spectacular talent, a 21 year old's youth but with some acquired maturity, and most importantly, the willingness to sign for a 3 year entry level contract that would see him receive just under $2M a season.
Realistically, if the Leafs don't waste their no. 7 pick to pick up an over the hill player, the pain of their loss in the Stamkos Sweepstakes could be dulled by acquiring 2 NHL ready first round calibre young prospects with only one first round pick.
This summer could see many major roster and front office shakeups, including whispers of Brian Burke waiting for the end of the Ducks' season to formally begin talks to take the GM job, trading/buying out Bryan McCabe and Darcy Tucker, the departure of Andrew Raycroft, and with any luck, a serious bid on impending UFA Brian Rolston.
More exciting than all of them however, would be seeing Brunnstrom's name on the back of a Maple Leafs sweater.
On the Bleacher Report, I'm Andrew Castaneda.
With files from TSN.ca, hockeydb.com, The Hockey News, CBC.ca, NHL.com, WikiPedia.