Unrelated Update: New signing Brayden Irwin to play tomorrow night against Atlanta (link).
#36 in Blue and White is proving to be everything his number-sake Anton Stralman never became in Toronto. Hear me out, Andrew R.
Although some may argue Carl Gunnarsson doesn’t possess the same offensive potential, the parallels extend beyond the jersey number. Both are blonde Swedes, both skate well, both were drafted by John Ferguson Jr. in the seventh round of their respective draft years. It took me a few games upon Gunnarsson’s call-up to completely realize it actually wasn’t Stralman on the Leafs’ backend – perhaps I should’ve paid a little more attention to his own-zone play as an indication. Fortunately for Leafs fans, unlike Stralman Gunnarsson has quickly established himself as an effective two-way defender at the NHL level while carrying a happy-to-be-here attitude instead of one of self-entitlement and “gimme” expectations. Gunnarsson has voiced on a few occasions his happiness to be a part of an illustrious organization like the Maple Leafs, calling it an “honour.”
Older than one might think at 23 due to being passed over at the draft three times before JFJ took a flyer in ’07, Gunnarsson is a cinderella story of sorts and his journey informs his mental approach to the game. When he got his first NHL look on November 14 against Calgary, he never looked back.
Ron Wilson wasn’t hesitant in speaking highly of Gunnarsson that night: “we can use him on the powerplay, he can kill penalties, he played with a lot of poise, he’s not nervous going back for pucks on a team that forechecks hard.” Gunnarsson went on to post a plus-four in his first nine games in the NHL before a tough injury setback against Buffalo on November 30 put him out for a month and a half, forcing him to miss 22 games with a hyperextended elbow. His ability to come back in mid January and pick up where he left off is another testament to his character when some might’ve felt a little hard done by after finally “making it.”
If we stop thinking upside and start looking at real production, Gunnarsson’s points-per-60 rate far outmatches that of Stralman at 1.01 to Anton’s 0.59 in his first season in Columbus. Last night’s goal in Pittsburgh, a good first pass that aids the transition game, and the feet to join the rush reveal natural offensive ability that only serves as a bonus to his consistently strong defensive-zone presence.
Gunnarsson currently sits at plus-ten on the plus/minus scale on a club that remains second-last league-wide in goals against per game, making him far and away the best Leaf in that regard (Schenn is next at plus-four). Among the Leafs’ blue-line regulars, Gunnarsson faces the third hardest competition behind Francois Beauchemin and Dion Phaneuf. Meanwhile, he ranks a -0.137 Â in quality of teammates, last among Leaf rearguard regulars. He also sees 21 minutes of ice time a game, no insignificant sum for a player not only in his first year in the NHL but on North American ice altogether. Wilson has not been babying Gunnarsson, and the coach deserves plenty of credit for the way in which he’s expressed his confidence in Gunnarsson and rewarded him with continued ice time.Â While no bruiser, Gunnarsson employs a respectable 6’2, 190 frame effectively and closes the gap well. Although occasionally prone to lapses under pressure, his defensive zone game is smart, simple, and mistake-limited for a first year defender.
His first half-season in the NHL indicates he might well be on his way to becoming a solid, all-around fourth defenceman and mainstay on the Leafs blue line. After Burke went with a purely North American line-up of selections during his first draft at the helm, it certainly makes a case for leaving a pick or two to allow scout Thommie Bergman to work his magic. A pioneer in the game of hockey and Swedish defenceman himself, Gunnarsson is another shining example of Bergman’s knowledge of defensive talent.