Damien Brunner, Detroit Red Wings, Oliwer Kaski, Tomas Nosek, Ville Leino

Red Wings: Recent History of European Free Agents

There are few things as exciting as seeing a new face join a team. Whether it’s through trade or free agency, new blood sparks the imagination with what role they might play. Of course, the same is true for new players from North America and the wealth of talent to be found overseas playing in the European leagues.

For the Detroit Red Wings, the overseas free-agent market has provided management with the opportunity to unearth hidden gems and fill out the team’s depth chart. All it (usually) costs is an entry-level contract (ELC) for a chance to crack the roster. However, the results have varied.

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Over the last decade or so, the Red Wings have dabbled in the European free-agent market. Most recently, they brought forward Mathias Bromé into the fold. A glimpse at the past might foreshadow what to expect from the newest member of the team.

Ville Leino (2008-2010)

After putting up 77 points in 57 games in Finland’s top league, forward Ville Leino was a hot commodity heading into the 2008-09 season. The Red Wings secured his services, and the 25-year-old spent most of that season in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins. His 46 points in 57 games were inspiring, but his nine points in 13 games with the Red Wings put the hype-train into overdrive.

However, in 2009-10, Leino fell off a cliff in terms of production. He managed just seven points through 42 games with the Red Wings, and his offensive struggles prompted management to trade him to the Philadelphia Flyers for a 2011 fifth-round pick. All-in-all, with the Red Wings he played in just 55 regular-season games and seven during the 2009 Playoffs.

Leino scored 21 points in 19 games during the Flyers’ run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. He put up the best statistical season of his NHL career the following season, collecting 53 points through 81 games. All signs pointed to a fruitful career as a middle-six forward, and Leino signed a six-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres in the 2011 offseason. At the halfway point of that contract, the Sabres bought him out, and he never returned to the NHL.

Damien Brunner (2013)

Due to the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Brunner’s time in Detroit was very brief but very inspiring. In the season and a half in Switzerland, before he joined the Red Wings, the winger posted 117 points through 78 games. His offensive instincts were evident, and he was quickly projected to become a potent offensive winger in the Red Wings’ lineup.

Brunner posted 26 points through 44 games and provided the team with a right-handed option on offense. Through 14 playoff games, he chipped in nine points, proving his ability to produce at the NHL level. However, his goal after that was to cash in.

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A deal with the Red Wings never came to fruition as the Swiss forward priced himself out of Detroit. Instead, Brunner signed a two-year deal with the New Jersey Devils, where he played just 77 games over one season and part of the next before terminating his contract to return to Switzerland. His skill was undeniable, but he was unable to adapt once opposing defenses had figured him out.

Tomas Nosek (2014-17)

Nosek wasn’t signed to be a threat like Brunner and Leino. Instead, he was signed to bolster the organization’s depth at center and potentially challenge for a bottom-six role on the Red Wings. Naturally, most of his success came with the Griffins in the AHL.

Nosek played in just 17 games with the big club, but he caught the attention of a certain expansion team during his 2016-17 season in the AHL. With 41 points in 51 games, he was a top player in the lineup as the Griffins went on to win the Calder Cup. Nosek led the way with 22 points in 19 playoff games. Despite that the Red Wings exposed players like Petr Mrazek and Riley Sheahan in the expansion draft, the Vegas Golden Knights surprisingly snagged Nosek.

Tomas Nosek #92, Vegas Golden Knights
Tomas Nosek #92, Vegas Golden Knights, October 13, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He has since become a stable force in the Golden Knights’ bottom six. He’s a positive possession player, wins around 53% of faceoffs, and generally stays out of the penalty box. He’s no All-Star, but he’s carved out a role for himself on one of the league’s best teams.

Libor Sulak & Oliwer Kaski (2017; 2019)

Since the great Nick Lidstrom retired, the Red Wings have been plagued by defensive issues. In their attempts to plug the holes, the organization has looked overseas to find an impact defenseman, that search includes Libor Sulak and, most recently, Oliwer Kaski.

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In Sulak’s case, the Czech import came over to North America at the age of 23 and joined the Griffins. Due in part to his strong skating abilities and a number of injuries on the blue line, he cracked the opening night roster for the 2018-19 Red Wings. After just six games, he returned to Grand Rapids where he finished the season, and then returned to the eastern hemisphere after signing to play in the KHL.

Libor Sulak Grand Rapids Griffins
Libor Sulak, Grand Rapids Griffins, Oct. 2018 (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Kaski was one of Steve Yzerman’s first acquisitions as the Red Wings’ general manager. As the winner of the Lasse Oksanen Award as MVP of Finland’s SM-Liiga, many envisioned Kaski could crack the Red Wings’ lineup and provide an offensive boost from the blue line. Unfortunately, that never happened, and the Red Wings traded him to the Carolina Hurricanes in mid-December.

Dose of Reality

If recent history tells us anything about the impact European free agents have had on the Red Wings, it’s that fans should temper their expectations. While it’s exciting to add a player like Bromé to the organization, chances are he’s not going to light up the NHL. In fact, chances are he won’t even find his greatest success with the Red Wings.

It’s not always about finding a player who can score 50 points. Sometimes, it’s about finding that player who can be a reliable 12th or 13th forward to fill out the lineup or roster. The greatest success story on this list is Nosek, and he’s never cracked 20 points at the NHL level.

That’s why it’s okay if Bromé becomes and stays a fourth-liner. When you’re not swinging for the fences, the European free agent market can yield a player who will hold down a spot in the NHL for years.

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