SUNRISE, Fla. — He was simply known as Bruno to his adoring Minnesota Wild fans, but on Tuesday night, Dec. 3, Andrew Brunette will be behind the opposing bench in his first season as an assistant coach to Florida Panthers coach Joel Quenneville.
“Bruno gives you experience as a player not too far removed from the game,” said Quenneville, the former Blackhawks coach who coached Brunette in 2011-12, the Ontario native’s final season of his sterling 16-year NHL career.
“He’s got really good instincts of the overall game. He’s got a real good mindset on what players think and how they see the game. He has helped our power play be very effective. I think that was one of his strengths and trademarks as well. He’s one of those hockey players who really saw the game the right way.
“If only he was a little faster,” smiled Quenneville following morning skate at the BB&T Center.
Brunette, 46, scored 268 goals for seven teams from 1995 to 2012, of which 119 came during his two stints on the Wild (2001-04, 2008-11). He notched 114 power-play goals, several of which came on dirty rebounds in front of the net off shots from Wild fixture Mikko Koivu.
“You can see that when he played the game he’s very smart, not just about hockey but about life in general,” said Koivu, who scored the game-winning shootout goal in Sunday’s 3-2 victory over the Dallas Stars in his 1,000th game. It was his 700th career point.
“He wants to learn each and every day. His passion for the game is a good thing for hockey that he’s involved and stayed involved.”
After Brunette’s playing career, he joined the Wild front office and for the previous seven seasons served many roles, including director of player personnel, assistant general manager and assistant coach.
“Obviously, I had a lot of good years with him playing-wise, but he also coached us,” Koivu said. “I know what he can bring; and I know him and (Quenneville’s) relationship, so I’m happy for him, and he’s excited as well.”
Brunette has been running the Panthers’ power-play units, which are currently ranked eighth in the NHL at 22.5 percent efficiency. Their 18 power-play goals are tied for 11th most, one behind the Wild’s 19.
As for Brunette’s power-play prowess, Koivu chuckled and said: “He didn’t have to move on that and didn’t have to skate, so of course that’s why it was his favorite part. He just parked in front of the net, and when the pucks came in, he put his hands up.”
Brunette wasn’t allowed to defend his skating speed as Panthers assistants are off limits to the media unless pre-arranged.
With starting goalie Devan Dubnyk left behind during this three-game road trip to be with his ailing wife Jennifer, Wild coach Bruce Boudreau decided to give rookie goalie Kaapo Kahkonen his second NHL start on Tuesday.
Alex Stalock, who is 4-0-2 in his past six starts, is expected to get the nod against the Lightning on Thursday.
Kahkonen, a 23-year-old Finn, notched 32 saves in a 3-2 victory over the Devils in his first NHL appearance on Nov. 26.
“He deserved a game after the Jersey game,” Boudreau said. “I thought this would be the spot, so I told him a couple of days ago, so he’d get ready for it. … The last time Alex played in Tampa we lost 2-0 but he had a shutout going until the last five minutes. He was absolutely great; so it’s not an uncomfortable thing for him.”
Boudreau was close, as it was a 3-0 loss on Dec. 23, 2017, with the Lightning’s final goal coming with the net empty.
Kahkonen will face Panthers goalie Chris Driedger, also making his second NHL start after posting a 3-0 shutout over the Predators on Saturday. He’s replacing two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, who has struggled in his first season in Florida with a mediocre 3.84 goals-against-average and .884 save percentage.
“It’s really an unfortunate situation,” Kahkonen said of Dubnyk’s absence. “Obviously, I can’t think about that. I have to do my job and help the team, whether it’s backup or playing. I’m enjoying the moment. Obviously, it’s fun to be here and really awesome, so I’ll take everything as it comes.
“There’s 31 teams and 62 goalies in the league, right? So anytime you get to play you try to do your best.”
Lifelong Wild fan
Panthers rookie forward Dominic Toninato, a native of Duluth, who starred for Duluth East High School and the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where his father Jim played, is thrilled to be playing against his home-state team.
“(The Wild) were my hometown team, so I’m not going to lie, I grew up watching them and I loved them,” said Toninato, 25, who is on Florida’s third line with Denis Malgin and Frank Vatrano. “It’s special to play against my home state (team).”
Toninato has two goals in nine games.
“Tony had a real good training camp and we had to make really tough decisions at the beginning,” Quenneville said. “He had all the ingredients we’re looking for. He can check, score, can bring some speed, can take faceoffs and can multi-task in different roles.”