It hit Carl Gunnarsson
like a two-by-four.
After a sterling rookie season in which he finished plus eight in 48 games, Gunnarsson came to training camp last fall assured of a job.
Then, he played himself out of it.
How well he navigated the points between the beginning and the end of the season was showcased Tuesday by Gunnarsson’s new two-year contract with the Maple Leafs.
The 24-year-old Gunnarsson did not break the 20-minute barrier until his 17th game of the season and some games he barely saw the ice. He was scratched outright 13 times.
"I don't think we anticipated him struggling the way he has,“ coach Ron Wilson said in the early days of last season. "Maybe a little rest will do him some good. He seems to be rushing with the puck and not making simple plays like he did last year,” Wilson said. “Maybe his own perceptions of what he was supposed to do in the second year tainted him a little bit.”
"I haven't been playing very good,” Gunnarsson said. “I don't know why [I've struggled]. I think I'm just overthinking things out there, trying too much, and when you do that, things don't happen for you. That's when you start struggling even more."
Eventually, Gunnarsson figured things out. He played more than 21 minutes in his final 24 games. Five times in that stretch he worked more than 25 minutes.
In 68 games last season, Gunnarsson finished with four goals and 20 points. He finished minus-two and blocked 120 shots, fourth best on the team. In 111 career games the six-foot-two, 196-pound defenceman scored seven goals and recorded 28 assists. He had a scant 24 penalty minutes and a plus-six rating.
Gunnarsson’s skill set is lower case. He doesn’t staple opposing forwards to the boards, but he is effective enough in impeding them. Not quite blessed with offensive polish, he is a serviceable passer with an emerging taste for offence.
Gunnarsson’s game perfectly intertwined with that of his partner Luke Schenn
. Gunnarsson is the better skater and he pounced on the bevy of loose pucks produced by Schenn. Unlike Schenn, Gunnarsson was comfortable skating the puck out of his zone. While no one compared him with Paul Coffey, there was no element of Gunnarsson’s game that caused the coaching staff a whole lot of grief.
The Swedish defenceman is rounding into a top four player and a player who will give Schenn a leg-up in his progress towards league standing as a shut-down defenceman.
Schenn is looking forward to having his good friend and blueline partner back.
"Gunnar (Gunnarsson) is strong on both sides of the puck and he can play major minutes,” said Schenn. “He’s not too flashy, just a good defenceman and a good guy to play with.”