Gunnarsson's letting his play do the talking

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 6:58 AM ET

When Carl Gunnarsson was introduced as a member of the Maple Leafs lineup the most surprised person at the Air Canada Centre might’ve been ... well, Carl Gunnarsson.

“I was surprised. It has been a good time the past few days but it was taking me a while to get comfortable (playing with the American Hockey League Marlies) and I only scored two points. That’s not much. It was getting better but I wasn’t that good at the beginning,” said the 23-year-old from Orebro, Sweden.

In less than a week, Gunnarsson has gone from a spare part that every NHL team passed over in two draft seasons to one of Leafs coach Ron Wilson’s go-to guys on defence, playing 21.18 minutes in his debut.

Either that’s an indictment of a sorry Toronto defensive record, or a mercurial rise seldom seen in the annals of Maple Leafs draft picks.

To suggest we’ve seen the next coming of Borje Salming would be ridiculous. But on the cusp of another season of bitterness, there is an inkling Gunnarsson may turn into a useful piece in a never-ending puzzle.

He was selected 189th in the 2007 draft. In most cases that should doom him to a career of ignominy considering the Leafs’ futile record of finding NHL-calibre late-round draft picks.

In the last 15 years, the Leafs have had only two late-round picks who have made any impact — Danny Markov, taken 273rd in 1995 and Tomas Kaberle, a No. 204 pick in 1996.

So, let’s not make Gunnarsson the latest saviour of the week. But he does have a track record of sneaking up out of nowhere.

“I guess I’m a late bloomer, maybe,” he said yesterday. “I wouldn’t say I was one of the worst guys on my teams growing up but I definitely wasn’t really looked at by everyone as the best player on any team. I’ve never been looked at that way.”

Emil Axelsson, his defence partner in Sweden, drew acclaim for his physical play and was selected by the Islanders in 2004.

“I never had any thoughts of playing in the NHL, to tell the truth. I was struggling back home just to make the team. Playing in the Swedish Elite League was my goal. (Linkoping) had seven or eight what I thought were pretty good defenceman and I didn’t even know if I’d make that team.”

But he did, playing 30 games in 2006-07 and showing enough that Leafs fans may have one less reason to complain about former GM John Ferguson who selected him as the team’s seventh-round pick.

“I wasn’t even thinking about it. It wasn’t my draft year so it was just kind of fun when it happened.”

He grabbed the opportunity with Linkoping like a bulldog on bone, developing a reputation for defensive awareness.

“I’ve always played a simple game. Don’t rush, solid defence, I play it simple and try to create some offensive chances,” Gunnarsson said.

That, and injuries to Sweden’s starters, got him on to the world championship team and it probably didn’t hurt his chances of a call-up this week when he scored the bronze-medal winning goal against Wilson’s Team USA.

“We knew in training camp he was a good player and with injuries (Mike Komisarek is out three weeks) it gives him a chance,” Wilson said, who has teamed Gunnarsson up with Luke Schenn. As with Axelsson, he again finds himself with a more-hyped partner.

“The game went pretty good. I hope we can keep playing together,” Gunnarsson said. “(Emil) and I were good together. He likes to hit and take the body ... I like the puck and passing it around.”

Defencemen who find a chemistry and work well off each other can be a rare and wonderful sight. He found it with Axelsson. Maybe history can repeat itself with Schenn.

“It’s a hard thing to find that D partner, someone that you fit so well with that you work like one. And, sometimes,” said Gunnarsson, “it just clicks.”

bill.lankhof@sunmedia.ca


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