The experiment is off to a rousing start.
When the Detroit Red Wings signed free-agent forward Damien Brunner over the summer, they did so with the idea of playing him alongside Henrik Zetterberg. The NHL lockout put a hold on those plans — at least until Zetterberg contacted his new teammate a couple weeks back and inquired about joining him in Switzerland with EV Zug.
They’ve been inseparable ever since.
“Detroit said they were going to put (Brunner) on a line with Zetterberg, so I got to do it first,” Zug coach Doug Shedden said Wednesday in an interview. “I texted (Red Wings GM) Kenny Holland and said: `It works.“’
Has it ever.
Zetterberg is playing like a man possessed with seven goals and 11 points in just five league games — four of them victories for Zug to go along with a shootout loss — while Brunner sits on top of the Swiss scoring table. The third member of the line, former Edmonton Oilers forward Linus Omark, is also among the league leaders in points.
The NHL lockout has helped make it a special season for Shedden, a Canadian-born former NHL player who has coached all over Europe and North America during the last two decades.
He wasn’t sure what to expect when he first learned an elite-calibre player like Zetterberg would be coming to Zug. But after Shedden and his wife had the chance to take the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner to dinner it was clear he hadn’t arrived in Switzerland looking for a vacation.
“He’s made our power play better, he’s made our penalty killing better and he’s made all of our players in the dressing room better just by being around him,” Shedden said of Zetterberg.
The connection with Brunner could benefit the Red Wings once the NHL’s work stoppage ends.
A number of NHL teams showed interest in the 26-year-old Brunner over the summer after he was named Swiss league MVP last season. Highly skilled and lightning fast — “He ends up getting a lot of breakaways,” said Shedden — he signed with the Red Wings on July 1 and stayed at Zetterberg’s house when he visited Detroit.
“In talking to Zetterberg, he likes him and thinks he should be able to play (in the NHL),” said Shedden.
Not to be forgotten among Zug’s top contributors this season is Montreal Canadiens defenceman Raphael Diaz, who the veteran coach considers to be among the top five nicest players he’s ever worked with.
Diaz spent eights seasons in Zug prior to joining the Habs a year ago and has 16 points in 15 games for the team during the lockout.
“He’s just a great kid to be around, he works hard and I can’t say enough about the guy,” said Shedden. “He’s a classy kid and in my eyes, he’s a great player. I hope he goes to Montreal and continues to succeed.”
Zug currently sits seventh in the 12-team league, but has played fewer games than all of the teams ahead of it in the standings. A victory over SC Bern on Friday would move them up at least one spot.
The Swiss league has been a big beneficiary of the NHL lockout, with John Tavares, Jason Spezza, Rick Nash, Joe Thornton, Patrice Bergeron, Patrick Kane and Tyler Seguin among the other high-profile players to come over.
Shedden openly acknowledges that the end of the lockout will present a tough obstacle for Zug to overcome.
“If you take a Zetterberg, Brunner and Diaz out of our lineup, we’re in deep, deep, deep water,” he said. “But 75 per cent of our games are played before Christmas. So if those guys ... can help us get into a playoff situation before they’ve got to leave, I’m certainly going to shake their hand and thank them very much.”
Roughly 200 locked-out NHL players have now signed deals in Europe, with varying results. Here’s a look at three notable performers over the last week:
Evgeni Malkin, Magnitogorsk (KHL): The reigning NHL MVP has taken flight while playing for his hometown team, scoring 12 points in the last four games and being named the KHL’s top forward of the week. The scoring surge vaulted Malkin to second in league scoring, two points behind CSKA’s Alex Radulov.
Tyler Seguin, EHC Biel (Switzerland): Seguin followed his first hat trick in Switzerland last week with a two-goal effort the following game. The 20-year-old says he’s looking for a unique experience during the lockout and should get it after being joined in Biel by Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane over the weekend.
Nicklas Backstrom, Dynamo Moscow (KHL): Not only did Backstrom score his first KHL goal last week, he also managed to put an end to a mini-controversy by announcing he would soon be switching sweater numbers. The team assigned him No. 99 — some saw it as an affront to Wayne Gretzky — but Backstrom told a Swedish reporter on Tuesday that he’ll soon be wearing No. 69 instead.