Next in line

by Kyle Kujawa || AHL On The Beat Archive

During the Grand Rapids Griffins’ recent five-game winning streak, head coach Curt Fraser sent out the same starting forward combination each night: Fabian Brunnstrom and Gustav Nyquist on the wings, centered by Joakim Andersson.

It’s a unit that Fraser has used on and off this season, and one that has certainly been productive. And it isn’t hard to figure out why, as all three players were born and raised in Sweden.

“They’re good players,” said Andersson, who hails from Munkedal, of his linemates. “Of course it’s fun because they’re Swedes as well, but mostly it’s because they’re really good players.”

His wingers agreed. “I love playing with them,” said Halmstad’s Nyquist. “They’re both great players, and they’ve both played up in Detroit and showed that they can play on that level as well.”

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Brunnstrom, the Jonstorp native. “We’ve got good chemistry. We talk about all the little details and how we’re going to get better.”

The Swedish line combined for 18 points on the team’s 20 goals during the season-best winning streak. It’s yet another reminder of the impact in West Michigan made by the parent Detroit Red Wings, as the NHL team most synonymous with Swedish hockey players.

The Griffins have had a hand in the development of several of those players, including defensemen Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson, and the play of each of the three Swedes indicates that they could be next in line. For all the similarities in their interests, language and style of play, the trio have taken very different paths to get to their spots on the Griffins’ top line.

Brunnstrom is a player who popped up on the Red Wings’ radar several seasons ago when he garnered interest from almost every NHL team as a potential rising star climbing up from the depths of the Swedish minor leagues to the top-tier Elitserien in 2007-08. After a much publicized negotiation process, he chose to sign with the Dallas Stars, citing a better chance to move directly to the NHL.

A hat trick in his first NHL game only further fed the hype machine, but Brunnstrom spent most of his first two NHL seasons bouncing between the lower lines and press box. After a late-season trade to Toronto in 2010-11, the 6-foot-1, 206-pound winger signed with Detroit this season following a successful tryout at training camp.

“It’s a good organization,” he said. “Obviously, they have a great team.”

A deep Red Wings lineup started the season 5-0, and Brunnstrom was left a healthy scratch for most of the early part of the season. For more playing time, the team assigned him to Grand Rapids – several times. Brunnstrom moved back and forth across the state seven times between Nov. 22 and Dec. 3, as Detroit called him up as often as possible so he could be with his wife, who was expecting their first child.

“Of course I want to be in the NHL,” said Brunnstrom. “But it was hard to drive back and forth every day. It’s easier having an apartment and all my stuff here. I’m more focused on this team now, so it’s been better.”

As the 27-year-old Brunnstrom fights with the Griffins to prove he can handle an NHL job – in Detroit or elsewhere, as an upcoming unrestricted free agent – his linemates are both looking at full-time work in the not-so-distant future, having both made their NHL debuts earlier this season.

“I got here for practice, and I got the good news that I would play with the Red Wings later,” said Andersson, who made his NHL debut on Dec. 27 versus St. Louis. “It was a lot of fun.”

Andersson is in his second season with Grand Rapids after playing several seasons with Frolunda in the SEL. After a rookie season in which he recorded 22 points (7-15—22) in 79 games, the two-way center knew his offensive numbers would have to come up if he wanted a future in the NHL.

With 35 points (16-19—35) through only 53 games this season, Andersson has brought his offensive game to where it needs to be. Joining several of his countrymen in Detroit is an exciting prospect for the 22-year-old center.

“The Red Wings are known for their Swedish guys, they have a lot of good ones up in Detroit,” said Andersson, who was also named an alternate captain for Grand Rapids this season. “It’s a good school for us to be (in Grand Rapids) and play a lot of minutes in important situations.”

The youngest of the group (by less than seven months), Nyquist leads the Griffins with 54 points (19-35—54) in 52 games. He was the team’s lone representative at the 2012 AHL All-Star Classic and is one point shy of tying the franchise record for most points by a rookie.

Despite having played no more than 39 games during his three-year collegiate career, Nyquist believes he’s going to able to hold up for the duration of the 76-game AHL schedule.

“My body feels great, and it’s a great sign for the future,” he said. “[Strength and conditioning coach Aaron Downey] is doing a great job with us this year, keeping us in shape and setting up fun workouts for us to stay fresh out there.”

The trio holds a close friendship off the ice, but all indicated that they don’t limit their hangouts to only Swedes.

“Everyone in the locker room is great,” said Nyquist. “But there’s a special bond when you’re from the same country.”

“Me and Nyquist love to watch soccer,” said Andersson. “There aren’t really a lot on our team that like to watch soccer. Obviously, we hang out with other guys, too.”

Nyquist indicated that having several teammates of the same nationality helps with adjusting to the culture of a new country, and lets them “be Swedish for a bit” away from the rink.

“We understand each other, and if we have a problem we can discuss it off the ice, too,” said Brunnstrom. “When you’re on a line with somebody for a while, you get to know them a little bit better.”

It’s also a big help to the new father in Brunnstrom, who lets his linemates look after his son Alexander from time to time.

“If he wants to go with his wife somewhere, he usually lets [Joakim], his girlfriend and me look after the baby,” said Nyquist.

“It’s very nice of them,” said a smirking Brunnstrom. “Maybe I need to use them more often.”