Gunnarsson Always Undervalued

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (June 29) – The trade of defenseman Carl Gunnarsson to the St. Louis Blues on Saturday morning generated shock-value equal to a 2.5-magnitude earthquake. In other words, it hardly registered. Which effectively summarizes the half-decade-long term of Gunnarsson in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform.

He was just kinda there.

When the defense pairing of Gunnarsson and Dion Phaneuf entered the fray, it was Phaneuf that hockey fans noticed – more than occasionally for the wrong reason. No. 36 hung around the vicinity, clearing the puck with understated effectiveness; often close enough to bail out his adventuresome partner. Almost never was Gunnarsson asked to take a bow at the Air Canada Centre among the game’s three stars. Absolutely never did he do the Maple Leafs a smidgen of dishonor with words or action. And you could count on him virtually every night to be… there.

Now, Gunnarsson will be somewhere else, skating for the first time in his career with a team that has legitimate Stanley Cup aspiration.

St. Louis acquired the Orebro, Sweden native in exchange for a different style of defenseman – veteran Roman Polak, 28. The fact the trade had Randy Carlyle’s fingerprint all over it raised a bit of a red flag. Carlyle didn’t appreciate the quiet efficiency of veteran players Clarke MacArthur and John-Michael Liles, prompting general manager David Nonis to let the former walk as a free agent last summer (to Ottawa) and the latter to be dealt to Carolina at the New Year for plodding Tim Gleason. Now the reliable Gunnarsson has been shipped out of town for a more aggressive blue-liner, yet one that trailed the ex-Leaf in points (17-13) and plus-minus performance (plus-3 to Gunnarsson’s team-leading plus-13) this past season while skating for one of the half-dozen best clubs in the National Hockey League.

VETERAN DEFENSEMAN ROMAN POLAK LEANS INTO TYLER BOZAK DURING TORONTO-ST. LOUIS GAME LAST DECEMBER AT THE SCOTTRADE CENTER. 

Gunnarsson, however, does not have a physical component to his game (though he wasn’t often pushed around). Polak does. He is compactly and stoutly built at 6-foot-1, 227 pounds – nearly as wide as he is tall. We’re not talking Scott Stevens or Chris Pronger-tough, but a player that knows how to position himself defensively; stands up generally well against rival forwards and is able to throw in a jarring, open-ice check.

But, this is not – repeat, not – a trade that will hugely impact the Maple Leafs. There is no “culture change” with Roman Polak coming aboard, other than it upholding the apparent Leaf pattern – when you factor in the club’s draft selections – of becoming more European (Don Cherry will have a field day). Nor will the deal push St. Louis over the top, though Gunnarsson should fit nicely into the No. 4 defense slot behind Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk.

From my viewpoint, the the trade is pretty much a saw-off, and Nonis did well by adding a veteran body with edge to his play.

Now, Polak has to fit in seamlessly among teammates (as Gunnarsson did) and prove that he can be there virtually every night (as Gunnarsson was). All eyes remain on Gunnarsson’s former defense partner and a core element of the Maple Leafs that still hasn’t been addressed.

?       ?       ?       ?       ?       ?       ?       ?       ?       ?

Another question Leafs will encounter before next season is the identity of a goaltender to back up Jonathan Bernier. As of this writing, James Reimer holds the position, but that could change at any minute.

Reimer, 26, is a Group 2 restricted free agent, eligible for salary arbitration. The club has to tender him – by 5 p.m. EDT on Monday – a qualifying offer equal to 100% of last year’s salary, which was $1.6 million. And, given Reimer’s circumstance with the Maple Leafs, a majority of hockey observers expect him to be dealt prior to training camp. It appeared that Carlyle all but threw in the towel on Reimer late last season – infamously telling reporters in Detroit the netminder was “just okay” after a 3-2 loss at Joe Louis Arena, Mar. 18. This was widely viewed as the coach tossing his goalie under the proverbial bus.

A player/coach relationship doesn’t always govern incumbency or trade chatter. In this instance, however, the Leafs concluded that Reimer was no longer worthy of the No. 1 role he held throughout the lockout-abbreviated schedule (and gut-churning playoff loss to Boston) in 2013. Ultimately, acquiring Bernier from the Los Angeles Kings was the general manager’s call, but there was no vehement protest by Carlyle. As such, it is widely anticipated the Maple Leafs will trade Reimer – ideally to a team that offers him a chance to re-assume the starting role. If the Leafs somehow do not tender him a qualifying offer by 5 p.m. Monday, Reimer becomes an unrestricted free agent on Tuesday.

In Reimer’s absence, who might the Leafs call upon to back up Bernier?

Pending UFA Martin Brodeur is among the candidates and he’d be a natural. But, the NHL’s all-time leader in regular-season wins (688) and shut-outs (124) appeared to pour water on such a scenario when talking to the Newark Star-Ledger before the draft in Philadelphia. Veteran hockey writer Rich Chere looked into the matter extensively:

Although he was in Toronto this week and spoke to Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment president Tim Leiweke at a Yankees-Blue Jays game in Rogers Centre, Brodeur said discussions with other teams will reach the serious stage after this weekend’s draft. Free agents can talk to teams until Monday, but nothing can be signed until the market opens at noon on Tuesday. Agent Pat Brisson has begun to explore Brodeur’s options and has spoken to a half-dozen teams.

“It’s been really quiet. My agent is the one talking to a lot often teams right now,” Brodeur told The Star-Ledger. “I think we’re going to wait a little bit, see which teams call in and then see what we’re going to do. With the draft this weekend I think it will pick up after. I’m really happy, actually. I’m kind of sitting back and enjoying this as much as I can. I’ll see what the opportunities will be when people decide to talk to me. I’ll see what the interest is all about when I speak to them.”

Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan confirmed that the team is exploring the possibility of signing Brodeur, but indicated it would have to be as a backup. The Leafs are happy with No. 1 goalie Jonathan Bernier. “I’m sure we’re like a lot of teams. We’ve expressed an interest,” Shanahan said. “Nothing more than that. (Brodeur) is at a point where he can choose what he wants to do.”

But he would have to accept the role of backup in Toronto. “He possibly could be a fit,” Shanahan said. “We have a No. 1 goalie we’re excited about.”

“To me it doesn’t matter how much interest there is, just the situation I’m looking for,” said Brodeur. “It doesn’t matter if there are 12 teams or three teams. It needs to be the right team that has the interest. That’s the way I’m going about this. I’m not going to get worked-up about the amount of offers, one way or the other. It’s really the quality of the offer that I’m looking for.”

[Along with the Leafs], other possibilities are the Penguins and Blackhawks. But Brodeur, 42, hasn’t given up on being a No. 1.

“There are a few teams I feel I’m able to be that for them,” he said. “There are other teams that are interesting to me that would be more of a backup role with a good chance of winning a Stanley Cup. My goal is to be competitive next year and not go all year wondering if we’re going to make the playoffs or not going to make the playoffs. I want to make sure the decision I make will give me an opportunity to get back in the playoffs for probably what will be my final year.”

WHERE WILL THE STATISTICAL LEADER AMONG NHL GOALIES LAND?

Providing there are multiple offers for Brodeur and he’s fully amenable to a back-up role, the final paragraph would seem to disqualify the Maple Leafs. Understandably, a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer with three Stanley Cup titles would prefer to end his career in a competitive environment. Pat Brisson did have fairly extensive discussion with Brian Burke two summers ago, after Brodeur – at age 40 – led New Jersey to Game 6 of the Cup final, whereupon Los Angeles won its first championship. The Leafs, however, had not yet acquired Bernier and the talks were centered on Brodeur being the the club’s No. 1 stopper.

If Chere’s speculation about Pittsburgh and Chicago also showing interest in Brodeur is accurate – and money offers are comparable – Toronto would finish a distant third in the bidding.

KING PHIL: With Nikolai Kulemin having all but certainly played his last game for the Leafs, Phil Kessel becomes the longest-serving member of the club among current skaters. And, the roster will have been completely overturned since the end of the 2007-08 season (Kulemin made his NHL debut at Detroit, Oct. 9, 2008). Without Kulemin and Gunnarsson, the games-played-in-Toronto ledger is: Kessel 364; Phaneuf 302 and Tyler Bozak 296.

SAD NEWS: In the 1973 NHL draft, Medicine Hat Tiger teammates Tom Lysiak (Atlanta) and Lanny McDonald (Toronto) went second and fourth overall. Denis Potvin (New York Islanders) was the No. 1 pick. Lysiak played 13 seasons and 919 games in the NHL with the Flames and Chicago Blackhawks, registering 292 goals and 843 points. I was saddened to read this post on Facebook from former Leaf Kurt Walker:

Good Evening All, As I have mentioned in my past posts, my best friend former NHL Superstar Tommy Lysiak, has been battling MDS a form of bone marrow cancer along with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. This week he underwent seven straight days of chemo along with a major blood transfusion. Tommy is as tough as they make ’em but this was a difficult week for him. I want to ask you all to please keep Tommy, Melinda and Jessie in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time… God Bless You All!!! Thanks Walk

TOM LYSIAK WITH ATLANTA FLAMES.  

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

TWITTER: BERGER_BYTES

FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [HUMBER COLLEGE]

LINKEDIN: HOWARD BERGER [BROADCAST MEDIA]

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.