If you’re a General Manager, it’s probably best never to fall in love with a player (or at least very seldom) because you never know when you might have to move him along. That’s just the way it is in the business that is the National Hockey League.
But as an observer of what happens in Leaf-urbia, if I had any say in the decision-making process, one player I would not be moving in an effort to get more offensive “punch” in the present line-up is defenseman Carl Gunnarsson.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Gunnarsson is not the perfect player. We all know that he appeared to regress a tad at the beginning and through the first half of last season. But, like many Leafs, his play seemed to pick up by the end of the 2010-'11 season.
I sometimes think that, in this unique hockey market, the fans, media and coaching staff are as much to blame for a player “slumping” as the player himself. Look at Jonas Gustavsson, for example. He is facing a confidence crunch right now and it probably does not help that the local fan base and media hordes jump on every flaw, every play.
This is not to suggest that a player should be blaming external factors for the on-ice issues he might face. I simply mean that in this market, we do watch every mistake so closely that when a guy is "off" for more than a shift, we start to say, “so and so isn’t playing well…”. (It must be heaven playing in Tampa, where if two media people show up for practice that’s a big day for coverage of the local team.)
Look at the moment-by-moment commentary on Twitter. It’s there every Leaf game. One bad pass, and someone’s "having a lousy game". Hey, it’s OK for us as fans to have those views. That’s part of the fun of being a fan, for sure.
It’s just that, sometimes, if the player hears that enough (and they do hear things) before long the player starts thinking he is indeed struggling—and perhaps he was. But finding the cure for a tough game or two with that kind of daily scrutiny isn’t easy, I don’t suspect. (We are starting to see that already with Schenn this season. As his minutes drop, and I’m as guilty as anyone, we are all kind of watching to see what happens. Only seven games in, we are wondering: why isn’t he playing as well as he did last season? Is it a new defense partner? The big new contract? When in fact, the answer may simply be: the guy is human and just hasn’t been as assertive as he was when he was playing strongly through much of 2010-’11 (though he has been a bit stronger the last couple of games).
We should probably all relax—most of all young Schenn. We know he can play, so let’s let him play.
Which brings me to Gunnarsson. I just like the guy, like the way he plays. About a year ago, I opined that he had a bit of Nik Lidstrom in him. Now, that may be a stretch, but I just think that he is only now beginning to grow into his full maturity as a bonafide NHL defenseman. My snapshot viewing of him is that he can play at both ends of the ice. He is not Bobby Orr offensively (is anyone?), but he can shoot the puck and has good instincts in the offensive zone. I like that he doesn’t have to run at guys or bash people to take the puck away from a forward (hey, you need bashers, but big hits often lead to big risks, too). He is deceptively fast, is a fine skater who can shift away from forecheckers a bit like Kaberle and he’s pretty smart with--and without--the puck. I think it was the other night in Boston when he very deftly deflected a big shot from Chara out of the rink. No big splash, just a quietly effective moment in a game that requires a lot of those little plays for a team to be successful.
And, importantly, I think he’s the kind of d-man who will make his partner better, regardless of who the guy is. If someone is struggling, I feel he is the kind of guy who can help settle his partner down and get his game back.
Sounds like a pretty good NHL defenseman to me—and we already have him.
So why do I even bother to raise his name? Well, other than highlighting the fact that he is playing well (in my estimation) for the Leafs right now, I would hate for him to be the guy included in any kind of deal the Leaf brass may or may not be contemplating.
I mean, Schenn is not going anywhere, nor of course is Phaneuf. Komisarek is playing better most nights, but no one will pick up that contract. Liles is necessary as that skating, puck-moving, power-play defenseman. Franson could be dealt but won’t return much. Gardiner is staying put.
So if the Leafs need to get better in terms of their “top-six” forwards (and they do once they are serious about being a championship team) then they have to give something to get something. And it just makes sense that other teams would inquire about Gunnarsson, because he was not a "Burke guy" and would appear to be the one defenseman who would be "available" and bring something worthwhile in return.
If you were the GM of another NHL team, wouldn’t you ask about Gunner?
Gunnarsson turns 25 next month. When do NHL defensemen fully mature and play at the peak of their ability, in terms of physical presence, smarts, skill, etc.? We can debate the point, but it is certainly sometime later than the age of 25 and before 35, though there may be occasional exceptions.
So Gunnarsson is just now entering his NHL prime, having played all of 115 regular-season games, though not any playoff games because, well, he plays in Toronto. He has international experience for Sweden and is just emerging as the kind of player I think he can be.
Too, I really like the fact that he has received a grand total of maybe 14 minor penalties so far in his young career. Too often defensemen get “credit” because they have high penalty-minute totals. Nice thought, except that most of the time these are bad penalties because of being out of position or simply making a poor play. How does that help the team? All it does is make the penalty-killing units work that much harder. (That’s one of the things I liked about Kaberle; he rarely took dumb penalties to put the Leafs in a hole, because he was smart and could skate away from trouble without giving the puck away very often in his prime.)
All by way of saying that when Gunnarsson hits his peak years, I want it to be in blue and white, not in some market like Florida, Dallas or Nashville. Let him become that solid, dependable, all-around (All-Star?) defenseman right here, with the Maple Leafs.
Somebody else will have to be trade bait.