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Carl Gunnarsson: the signs are there, but it’s still early

It’s funny how one goal, or a break here or there that leads to a win lightens the mood on a hockey team—and within the fan base.

When the Leafs were losing close games, including in shootouts, it was natural to focus on who was struggling, including young defenseman Luke Schenn.

So the win in Tampa helped the mood, though the team surely deserved better a couple of nights earlier against the Islanders.

Nonetheless, it’s great to see a young defenseman like Gunnarsson begin to play and make an bit of an impact with the Leafs. It’s especially eye opening when a 7th round draft pick makes it to the big team and looks like he can indeed play.

While he’s older than most rookies are, it’s still no doubt wise not to rush to judgment when assessing the play of young d-men. As fans, we can sometimes become overly optimistic in terms of what we project. Similarly, we can dismiss a player far too soon.

Like everyone else, I’d like to see Gunnarsson play a lot more before we see how he will really fit. He certainly seems to play with poise. With good coaching, he should be a much better player a few years down the road.

I suggested a few days ago that the Leafs might do well to give Schenn some time in the minors. Not as a demotion, simply to give him valuable minutes and build his confidence. Regardless, Leaf fans are hoping that Schenn, a high first round-pick now 20 years old and Gunnarsson, a 7th round pick now aged 23, will both be cornerstones on the Leaf blueline for years to come.

While the Leafs will no doubt wish to add (and desperately need) a potential “Top 6” forward in the near future, if they could trade up to add one more young defender in the draft next summer Leaf fans may just have the kind of solid young defense corps that every NHL team wants. It won’t exactly be Bowmeester, Regehr and Phaneuf like Calgary has- all now established veterans and impact players- but it would be a positive step.

It’s still too early to make any accurate pronouncements about how things will unfold for Schenn and Gunnarsson. It’s usually much better when the expectations are modest, which is usually the case with late-round draft choices like Gunnarsson.

Detroit has rightfully earned credit for some wise later-rounds selections over the years, picking up talented forwards like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, among others.

However, there is some precedent in Toronto, too. The Leafs selected Tomas Kaberle in the 8th round in 1996. Pat Quinn put him in the line-up as a young rookie in 1998-’99 and while hardly a physically punishing defenseman, he has played some very good hockey for the club ever since.

So we’ll see how Gunnarsson progresses. If he turned out at all like Kaberle, most Leaf enthusiasts will be pleased. The ceiling is supposedly higher for Schenn, but things don’t always work out as expected.

It’s important to be patient with both young players. Three years from now will be way more important for the team than now.

This much is certain. It’s nice to know the Leafs have some youth—talented youth—on the back end, young defensemen that should only get better with age, proper development and experience.

It management does indeed wish to build from the net out, then some pieces are in place, it seems. But it may take a while to build strength up front, where any success will have to come through sheer effort and outworking the opposition most nights.

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