Early in the afternoon on Wednesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that top line winger Joffrey Lupul would miss the next three to four weeks with a separated shoulder. Looking at both the schedule and the standings, it’s safe to say that Lupul’s career year is over. Soon the talk began to spread that Lupul was the teams MVP on the season, and that his loss is the final nail in the coffin that has been this deflating season. I agree with the latter statement, but as for the former, is Lupul the MVP for the 2011-2012 buds? With 25 goals and 42 assists in 66 games, there is no doubting that Lupul had a fantastic season, but looking back on the season I’d say that defenseman Carl Gunnarsson has just as valid a claim to that mythical Leaf MVP award than anyone else.
The 25 year old 6’2″ 200 lbs defenseman entered this season as a depth player for the blue and white. While he had been solid in his first two seasons in the league, he was in no means thought to warrant playing time over the likes of veterans Dion Phaneuf or John Michael Liles. Gunnarsson was also behind youngsters such as Luke Schenn, Keith Aulie and Cody Franson on the depth chart. It was believed that Gunnarsson and Mike Komisarek would be rotating spots as the 7th Leafs defenseman all season. However the emergence of Gunnarsson has not received the amount of attention that revelations such as Lupul and Jake Gardiner have this season. The steady Sweede’s transformation into an above average defenseman has had just as much of an impact on the present, and looks to be a bright hope for the future.
Paired with captain Dion Phaneuf for the majority of this season, it was Gunnarsson’s stability and positioning that has allowed the free wheeling Phaneuf to enjoy his renaissance season. Early in the campaign it was evident that the switch had apparently flipped on for him, and he hasn’t looked back since. Phaneuf’s faults are blindly obvious, but it is rare that one looks back on a goal scored against the Leafs and believes Gunnarsson was at fault. He has been, in my opinion, the Leafs most consistent and steady blueliner by far this year. Gunnarsson sits second on the Leafs playing 22:05 a night behind Phaneuf’s 25:28 minutes per game. The reality is that Phaneuf plays over 2 minutes a game more on the power play than his blueline partner. Therefore on a nightly basis, both Phaneuf and Gunnarsson play equal minutes trying to prevent other teams from scoring.
Offensively Gunnarsson has not blown the competition away, but he has chipped in with a respectable 3 goals and 16 assists this season. Gunnarsson has also demonstrated an ability to jump into the rush and create chaos and confusion for the opposing teams (see the Grabovski goal the other night in Pittsburgh). His offensive skills are there, and with time one can definitely foresee him being a bigger contributor at both ends of the ice. For the time being though Gunnarsson has become the teams top player in his own zone. He leads the Leafs (and is tied for 13th in the NHL) with 137 blocked shots. Gunnarsson is also only one of three Leaf blueliners who is not a minus on the season. Much like Leaf fans saw for many years in Tomas Kaberle, Gunnarsson is able to deftly avoid opposing forecheckers with finesse and seamlessly begin the breakout with a solid first pass. This ability is an underrated, but extremely valuable skill. To illustrate how important Gunnarsson is on the Leafs back end, in early February he missed three games with a high ankle sprain. In those games the Leafs allowed 14 goals, and visibly looked lost trying to replace his 22 minutes a night.
Watching the Pittsburgh Penguins – who are in my opinion the team to beat in the East – target and punish Gunnarsson every chance they got on Wednesday night, it’s evident that knowledge of his importance to the Leafs has spread throughout the league. Signed through next season at a very team friendly $1.325 million, Gunnarsson also provides the Leafs with great value money wise. Once this current contract expires, Gunnarsson will only enter restricted free agency meaning the Leafs can control this emerging asset for as long as the organization wants. MVP? Probably not, but mythical Norris for sure.