MLHS’ Player Reviews takes a look at another four-year veteran of the Toronto Maple Leafs, defenseman Carl Gunnarsson.  Perhaps the second-most famous native of Orebro, Sweden (after – hilariously – the lead singer of The Cardigans), Gunnarsson has gone from being a seventh round pick in 2007 to being on the shutdown pairing with captain Dion Phaneuf.  He battled through a hip injury, recording one goal and 14 assists in 37 regular season games en route his first NHL playoff appearance.

The first thing that needs to be said about Gunnarsson’s game is that he plays a lot of minutes, you just don’t notice it.  He was third on the Leafs D in ice time per game this season at 21:16 minutes a night.  Despite missing 11 games to a hip injury, he still managed to play the seventh-most minutes among the Leafs in the 2012-13 season.  He was also second in shorthanded ice time per game among Leaf defenders; playing 2:35 minutes each night (he’s never averaged less than 2:00 a season).

They weren’t easy minutes, either.  Like previous entries Phaneuf and Nikolai Kulemin, the stalwart Gunnarsson was predominantly used in a shutdown capacity by Randy Carlyle this season and excelled at it.  He faced the fourth toughest Corsi  Quality of Competition  league-wide among defensemen with 30+ games played.  He took the vast majority of his shifts in the defensive zone, and was doing so against the league’s top players at putting pucks to the net.  He became increasingly useful as he is one of the few Leafs defenders who had the ability to both break up the play AND fire off a terrific break-out pass.

Often maligned in Leafs Nation for being a ‘chicken Swede,’ Gunnarsson registered slightly over two hits per game this season.  His willingness to engage with the body has improved in four years since coming to Toronto, though he’s still more likely to use positioning to separate the puck from an attacking player.

Yet it’s his even keel that makes him so attractive to the Leafs.  A cerebral player, he’s less rambunctious than Phaneuf, and also less likely to get caught out of position at crucial junctures in playoff OT.  But Gunnarsson is the bridle to give Phaneuf free rein.  At their best, the duo exemplify this bang-on Matt Mistele tweet:

And it’s oddly fitting, too.  No other defenseman has matched as well with Phaneuf as Gunnarsson has since both arrived in Toronto in the 2009-2010 season.

Gunnarsson’s offense is actually quite strange for 2012-13.  He finished the year on pace for a career-high 33 points in an 82-game season, despite the nagging hip injury and increased responsibility in a defensive role.  In all previous seasons with the Leafs, he featured on the second power play unit, averaging at least one minute of ice time per game.  This year, his power play decreased to a mere 45 seconds per game

As the highlights below will show you, he possesses an underrated ability to deliver just the perfect pass.  The Leafs were often counter-attack team this season, and Gunnarsson’s vision and passing skills helped move the puck quickly out of the zone.

There is one caveat I’d offer about Gunnarsson’s offensive game.  He was third highest on the Leafs defense in on-ice shooting percentage with an abnormally high 11.41%; 8th highest among all NHL defenders this season (it should be noted that Franson and Mark Fraser are 1st and 2nd on both lists).

On Friday, Declan offered a sage critique on Phaneuf’s cardiovascular limitations and it appears the same could be said of Gunnarsson’s game.  Interestingly enough, the Leafs only managed to win four of 12 games that Gunnarsson played more than 22 minutes in this season.  It could just be random, funny numbers in a shortened season, but Leafs fans may be disconcerted with the knowledge that the club’s shutdown pair’s ultimate weakness might be playing a lot.

But when looking at Carl Gunnarsson’s future with the Toronto Maple Leafs, it isn’t a question of ‘if?’ It’s a question of ‘how much?’ The soon-to-be 27 year old is a restricted free agent this summer (on account of a late birthday) and you’ve got think he’s the third highest priority to re-sign after fellow RFAs Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson.

On the most recent Leaf Report podcast, both James Mirtle and Jonas Siegel agreed that Gunnarsson’s cap hit would likely fall between $2.5 and 2.9 million.  Given the number of tough-as-nails minutes he plays, his chemistry with Phaneuf and burgeoning offensive game, I’d reckon his money will be closer to 3.5 million come July 5.

Whatever the cost, I wouldn’t miss the money, as 30-point defensemen and shutdown defensemen are not usually contained within the body of one man, and to have one so cheaply is doubly rare.  The Leafs may need to improve their D corps, but Dave Nonis has real keeper in Carl Gunnarsson.


Plays of the Season:

Good things happen when you shoot, like giving your team a 1-goal lead less than three minutes into play.  Crazy thing about this game? Gunnarsson also added two assists for his first 3-point game of his career.

Gunnarsson and Kadri and Kulemin combine to create magic.  Kadri received plaudits for his alley oop pass, but the play starts with Gunnarsson being able to thread a pass to Kadri across 100 feet of ice.  Tremendous break out pass catches the Flyers flat footed and leads to the goal.

Gunnarsson keeps the play alive at the point, and then leaves it on a tee for Phaneuf to one-time it top cheddar.


RATE THIS PLAYER: Out of 10, rate Carl Gunnarsson’s season relative to his role, opportunity/deployment and the expectations for the player entering the season. Be sure to back it up.