Carl Gunnarsson is the invisible man.
Unnoticed, even in the hottest hockey market, the 26-year-old Gunnarsson is regularly among the top five Leafs in ice time. He was third last season with 21:16, second the year before.
This season he sits fourth in ice time among defenceman with 19:31 behind Phaneuf, Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner but he is the only member of that group who doesn’t see power play time. Gunnarsson’s three and half minutes on the penalty kill leads the blueliners.
Unlike most hockey players, you would reflexively define Gunnarsson by what he does not do.
He doesn’t score much, just 12 goals in 233 games. That averages out to a tidy four goals a season.
He doesn’t fight and he doesn’t take penalties, dumb or otherwise. Last season’s 14 minutes left Gunnarsson the 143rd most penalized defenceman in the league. He has two minors this season. Because he plays against the opposition’s top lines and because he is generally surrounded by a cast of defensive player, his minus 2 is acceptable. Just three of the Leafs 33 goals have come with Carl Gunnarsson on the ice.
What he does is valuable enough. The Leafs went 6-5 (.545) in the 11 games Gunnarsson missed last season and .608 when he suited up.
If captain Dion Phaneuf, the team’s workhorse defenceman is the bright light of the blue line, it’s not hard to find the guy standing in his shadow.
“I don’t care if I get the attention or the guy across the room or the guy next to me gets it,” Gunnarsson said, “as long as the team has success.”
NHL teams drafted 194 of the 211 players they would take in the 2007 draft before the Leafs took a chance on Carl Gunnarsson. He had been shut out of the draft as an 18 and 19-year-old. He was never the top player on any of his teams.
The Leafs were like everyone else. They saw a reedy defenceman who didn’t possess a hard shot and didn’t hammer opposing forwards. He skating was nondescript. The scout’s mantra, zero in on prospects with one definable skill and hope the other qualities evolve, was precisely the formula that dictated Carl Gunnarsson would go unnoticed.
But when Gunnarsson arrived for his first training camp his lower case talents began to captivate coaches and managers. Two years after being drafted, Gunnarsson was in the NHL. He would play only dozen games for the Marlies.
“He keeps his plays very safe and limits his turnovers and finishes checks,” Franson said. “He’s always in a good defensive position so you never see him get exposed. He’s that guy who nobody talks about because what he does isn’t flashy.”
Leafs Vice-President of Hockey Operations Dave Poulin likens Gunnarsson to Doug Crossman, a steady NHL defender who stuck for 914 games with eight teams in the 1980s and 1990s.
“He just has that low panic threshold. He’s not overly fast but he plays a smart game,” Poulin said.
Gunnarsson’s dependability allows Phaneuf to free-lance and jump in the offence or veer off on a seek and destroy mission in the neutral zone. Where Phaneuf is fiery, Gunnarsson plays at a lower temperature.
“Sometimes I think he gets overlooked because he is so steady and calm,” said the Leafs captain. “He plays big minutes against other teams’ top lines night in night out. He’s always got a good stick. He makes a very good first pass. He’s one of the top shot blockers in the league in my opinion. He’s huge for us on penalty kill. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
“Being the captain and being Dion, he gets a lot of attention,” Gunnarsson said. “It works fine for me flying under the radar. If I can help him out and no one notices it, that’s fine.”