Before the 2010-11 NHL season began, the Toronto Maple Leafs were confident they had more than enough bodies to fill the quota on the blue line. It was thought they had at least eight defensemen who could step in as NHL-ready defenders at any moment.
But after many of those moments have come and gone and a couple major trades, it's hard to say the club has more than four reliable blue liners after 70 games. Actually, it's depressingly easy to say that for Leafs fans.
It's been an interesting, and mostly disappointing, year for the Leafs defense, who could have—and should have—performed at a higher level. But through the rubble, it hasn't been all bad, and among the positives has been a 24-year-old who didn't even have a spot in the lineup back in October.
Carl Gunnarsson has arguably been the Leafs' best defenseman over the past two weeks, and has gone from being a healthy scratch 14 times earlier in the year to playing well over 20 minutes a night.
He has not only proven himself worthy of a spot in the lineup, but he's also worked his way from the bottom of the depth chart to being a deserving member of the team's top four. A rise worthy of recognition.
Gunnarsson is now used in all situations, including being entrusted with important minutes late in close games. His 6'2", 200-pound frame makes him useful in front of the net on the penalty kill, and he's begun to show his skill in moving the puck out of the zone—something that has been dearly missed since the trade that sent Tomas Kaberle to the Boston Bruins in February.
He's also, somewhat surprisingly, become a key puck-mover on the power play as of late—after it somehow took the Leafs more than 12 seconds to realize the Brett Lebda power play experiment was not working. And though the power play is still seriously lacking (and possibly the most pathetic in the NHL right now), Gunnarsson has at least given them a chance to improve it.
And that's saying something for this club.
His best game of the season might just have been Mar. 12 at home to the Buffalo Sabres, where he was a force on the ice all night, playing over 25 minutes and finishing the night a plus-one.
He also played a huge role in the game-tying goal, setting up Mikhail Grabovski in the third period on a crisp pass. It was a goal that set the tone for the rest of the game and lead to the eventual 4-3 victory.
Gunnarsson was also called upon in a big way in a Mar. 8 matchup against the New York Islanders, where he played 29:44—the most ice time he's had as an NHL player.
It hasn't just been in his own end that he has impressed either, as his offensive flair has come out when need be. He has three goals and 13 points through 56 games and as his confidence rises, so does his effectiveness on the point.
There is no doubt that he is more important to the team than guys like Mike Komisarek and Lebda, who are both more experienced than the sophomore, but seem far less effective when the pressure is on.
But this isn't the first time he's made an unexpected rise, as Gunnarsson was drafted 198th overall (seventh round) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. That's about three rounds after the unofficial probably-never-going-to-make-it point for hopeful prospects. He made it despite adversity then, and he's showing with ease that he's on his way to doing it again.
Gunnarsson's rise was in part due to the movement of Kaberle and Beauchemin out of Toronto, but his play has been anything but second-best. It's unlikely he'll have to worry about more October healthy scratches next season. The Swede has earned his place on the blue line, and then some.
And though the Leafs' playoff chances look dimmer by the day, Gunnarson's future looks exceedingly bright. Something that looked almost impossible at the start of the season.