Leafs blueline loaded with options

Maple Leafs defencemen Carl Gunnarsson (right) and Luke Schenn celebrate a goal against the Ducks...

Maple Leafs defencemen Carl Gunnarsson (right) and Luke Schenn celebrate a goal against the Ducks at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., Jan. 20, 2011. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:23 PM ET

TORONTO - With the captain at his side and the big minutes that go with it, Carl Gunnarsson is about to get the most enticing opportunity of his young career.

After a strong showing in what was a competitive training camp on the blueline, Gunnarsson finds himself on the Leafs’ top pairing on opening night.

There’s also the prospect of time on the second power-play unit, all of which should serve as a chance to solidify his role as a legitimate NHLer.

But here’s where the continuing growth of Gunnarsson gets interesting:

A strong start to the season may have added benefit to his employers, who would love to parlay the riches on the blueline into a forward that can upgrade the top six.

The big Swede is certainly available for the taking if the offer is right. Let’s just say, general manager Brian Burke will be listening to any and all offers and may be making some of his own.

For now, Gunnarsson isn’t going anywhere beyond the most important assignment of his time here.

“It’s great playing with Dion,” Gunnarsson said following Wednesday’s final practice of the pre-season. “I’m not going to change anything about my game, just try to read off of him and keep doing what got me here.”

The Leafs defence has a decidedly different look than it did a year ago with each of Phaneuf, Luke Schenn and Mike Komisarek entering the season with different partners.

Schenn will start alongside newcomer John-Micheal Liles while Komisarek gets the assignment of nurturing training-camp sensation, Jake Gardiner.

(That latter pairing, by the way, was the breakthrough of the pre-season for the Leafs. Gardiner played so well management had little choice but to keep him while Komisarek has quietly showed signs of being the player the team hoped he would be two seasons later than expected.)

But it’s more than faces that have changed. An emphasis throughout the pre-season has been to stress quick puck movement. With Gunnarsson, Liles and Gardiner, the Leafs should have a player capable of doing so on the ice at all times.

“Our back end is much more mobile than it has been since I have been here,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said on Wednesday. “Those two factors (goaltending) and getting pucks out of your end as quickly as possible is huge.”

Liles, who besides working alongside Schenn will be the setup man for Phaneuf on the first power-play unit, believes the Leafs have the makings of one of the top defensive groups in the league.

“If you ask anybody in this room, I think they’d be pretty happy stacking up against the majority of teams,” Liles said. “We’ve got quite a few guys that can move the puck and quite a few guys that can throw the body around pretty well. It’s a good mix and obviously we have a lot of depth.”

That depth certainly creates some options for the Leafs, both on the ice and off of it. Wilson said Wednesday an organization should have 10 extra players capable of playing at the NHL level because of the threat of injury.

Already they have to place Cody Franson in the press box opening night (and who would have bet that the other guy who came here in a trade with Nashville, Matthew Lombardi, would be playing before him?). Keith Aulie, who was Phaneuf’s partner last year, has to start the season with the Marlies.

“The way the game is now, there is a lot of hitting and the defencemen are usually on the receiving end because there’s no holdups in the neutral zone,” Wilson said. “Inevitably, somebody on the back end is going to get hurt.”

Burke and Dave Nonis will be touching wood on that last comment, given that the injury bug that bit hard through the pre-season has yet to reach the blueline.

And the longer it stays away and the more players like Gunnarsson thrive, the more options they have to profit from it.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/longleysunsport


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