Gunning For a Spot: Leafs Carl Gunnarsson Proving He's Ready For The NHL

Jon NeelyAnalyst INovember 19, 2009

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 26:  Carl Gunnarsson #36 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his goal in a pre-season game against the Detroit Red Wings on September 26, 2009 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario. The Leafs defeated the Red Wings 2-1. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The Leafs have had some serious defensive issues this season. The kind of serious that calls for you to be air-lifted to the hospital with just minutes to live.

Yes, that serious, and the heartbeat continues to weaken as the season roles on.

The Leafs have given up 71 goals against in just 19 games which ranks them 29th in the NHL in that category, the Carolina Hurricanes are 30th with 74. Terrible giveaways, poor checking in their own end, and disastrous coverage has led them to the embarrassing 3-11-5 record, tied for last in the NHL with the equally woeful Hurricanes.

It isn't just one or two players that are contributing to the defensive debacle either; this is an entire group effort, and one that has Coach Ron Wilson spreading the earful's equally throughout the group.

Tomas Kaberle and Ian White have stood out as the best of the Leafs defense, amid the rubble that has become this season. Kaberle has been a stud offensively, leading all defenders in the NHL with 21 points (2G, 19A) and White has played his way to the best plus/minus on the team (+2), but by no means has either player been perfect.

Kaberle continues to have problems physically in his own end when trying to get the puck away from the opposition. Anytime he finds himself with puck and opponent between him and the boards he is regularly pushed aside as he flails his stick in hopes of making a play. Sometimes you're the bug and sometimes you're the window, usually Kaberle finds himself being peeled off the preverbal window.

It must be said though, that Kaberle probably is the best in the NHL at bringing the puck out of his own zone and maintaining possession before making the pass up ice. But get him down low behind the net and he might as well take a seat with a nearby fan. 

White is a different story when it comes to getting down and dirty in the corners and even with his small stature he is more than willing to mix it up with anyone. The problem with him seems to be his disturbing nature of getting caught out of position trying to make a play. He will often get trapped behind the net while his man is all alone out front or is guilty of leaving someone open in front of the net while chasing down someone else's problem.

Both have been bright spots but neither is able to say his defensive play has been good enough to help the Leafs win. No complaints about their offensive output, but if that's all they're willing to contribute, Wilson could sure use someone up front on a line with Kessel.

As for the rest of the crew, well that's where things get really messy.

Luke Schenn had so much promise coming into his sophomore year, but so far he looks as if he should be in a college dorm rather than on the ice. Wilson originally felt that he would continue playing Schenn in key situations so he could work through his struggles, but that idea quickly came to an end on Tuesday night in Ottawa when the young defenseman was benched in the third, playing just over 10 minutes in the game.

Francois Beauchemin has had his great moments this season, but for the majority he is seen with his head down, skating to the bench, while the other team celebrates a goal. His habit of pinching in from the blue line has been costly for the Leafs so far this season and it is something that needs to be addressed before the Leafs set an NHL record for most 2-on-1's against in a season.

And with his poor play so noticeable on some nights, it begs to question why the media always seems to find Beauchemin when they have questions about how to fix the Leafs defense. Here's a hint; start with the guy you're talking to and go from there.

Mike Komisarek came in to this season hoping to prove be himself as one of the premiere stay-at-home defensemen in the NHL, but has come nowhere close. He has gone pointless in the 16 games he's played, adding a minus nine to that stunning array of statistics. He is out due to injury now but hopefully being forced to watch this team play from the press box will inspire him to improve his play upon return.

The fan's-eye-view can be a painful one.

Jeff Finger and Garnet Exelby are considered to be the sixth and seventh defensemen on the team, and therefore one is usually the odd man out for a game. Finger has one goal and five assists through his 10 games played, but hasn't seemed to gel with anyone in particular and is moved from partner to partner during games.

Exelby has been an utter waste of bench-space for the Leafs this season. Okay that was harsh but I'm not far off; he is a minus seven through ten games, and not a single point to show for it. His physical presence on the ice is a positive but he seems to want to throw a big hit more than make a solid play with the puck.

Clearly a tough situation for the Leafs on the blue line, and now that I’ve completely destroyed your faith in the team's defense core, how could there possibly be any way to save said group?

His name is Carl Gunnarsson, and he's here right the ship in Leaf Land.

The seventh-round pick in 2007 (194th overall) from Orebro, Sweden was very impressive during preseason action with the team and was arguably their best defender during that time.

We can end the argument now though, because when it comes to defense, the 23-year-old is the real deal and has been the best on the team since he showed up. The record says he is 6'2", 196 pounds, but looks twice that size when he plays. He is a beast in the corner, seemingly able to get the puck off anyone and then able to maintain possession and get it out of the zone.

And he can skate like the wind when he's got the puck.

(If you look close enough, he also has a diminutive resemblance to Frankenstien when he has his helmet on—or at least I think so.)

Sure, he's had his fair share of bonehead moments in the two games he's played and has been victimized once or twice for goals against, but on a Leafs squad that's done more bad than good this year, his rookie mistakes are barely noticeable in comparison.

He recorded his first NHL assist in Tuesday's tilt against the Senators on a Phil Kessel goal and played over 18 minutes in both games (21:18 against Calgary on Saturday).

It is becoming very apparent to Wilson and Co. that this is the kind of a player they can lean on when a game is on the line.

He played 12 games with the Toronto Marlies prior to being called up and was solid; recording two assists as the team's best defender. It's not only that he can chip in offensively and quarterback a power play when needed, but his vision on the ice is second to none and has been extremely evident so far.

I'm not calling him the next Niklas Lidstrom or Zdeno Chara, but this kid's potential is unlimited right now, and if he continues to outplay his fellow defenders he'll be permanently acquiring one of their spots on the ice upon the return of Komisarek.

And don't think for a second Wilson wouldn't do it.

In a season that has been grim from the start, with only a few bright spots to speak of, the play of Gunnarsson through two games has been a major positive for a team looking for answers. Calling him up from the minors could prove to be one of the best decisions they've made all season.

We'll thank Komisarek later.

Those serious issues the defense has been dealing with could soon change for the good if Gunnarsson continues to mold himself into a valued NHL blue liner.

Leaf fans take notice; this kid has some serious talent and deserves his spot in the NHL.