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Gunnarsson The Classic Late Bloomer

Wednesday, 05.10.2011 / 3:29 PM / News
By Mike Ulmer  - Mapleleafs.com commentator
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Gunnarsson The Classic Late Bloomer




Where are you now, Ryan Rufenach and Serhii Haiduchenko?

David Skokan, call home.

For your approval, three out of the nearly 200 names chosen by 30 NHL teams in the 2007 entry draft between when Patrick Kane was picked first overall by the Chicago Blackhawks and the Leafs’ selection of Swedish defenceman Carl Gunnarsson.

It is not hard to find a name over Gunnarsson’s in that draft. There are 192 players above him. Good luck unearthing names for players drafted under Gunnarsson. There are 17 of those.

Now Gunnarsson after just a dozen games with the Marlies and intermittent stops in the press box in the first half of last season, shares top billing on the number one defence pairing with captain Dion Phaneuf.

How does a player who created no real splash in his native Sweden rise from his team’s last pick four years ago  to the top of the pecking order for one of the most prestigious hockey franchises on the planet?

Player Age Round Number Year GM
Carl Gunnarsson 24 7 194 2007 John Ferguson
Matt Frattin 23 4 99 2007 John Ferguson
James Reimer 23 4 99 2006 John Ferguson
Drafting a hockey player is about alchemy. You need experience, you need instincts but none of those elements amount to  much in the bottom half of the draft unless spiked with generous amounts of luck.

There are to be considered pedigree, size, strength, experience, attitude, injuries, influences, coaching, calibre of competition, competency of teammates, genetics, level of affluence or lack of it, country of origin, resistance to change, acceptance of coaching, ability to lead, willingness to follow and conform, attention to detail, influence, both positive and negative of family, love life, attitude towards women, selfishness, experience with alcohol or drugs, position played and competetiveness.

Now once you tie off those loose ends, project how those elements will graft on to the basic skill set: skating, passing, hitting and seeing the ice. Now project that package four or five years in the future.

So how did the Maple Leafs under director of scouting Dave Morrison and headed by General Manager John Ferguson find Gunnarsson? And why did so many teams, including the Leafs who drafted Dale Mitchell, Matt Frattin, Ben Winnett, Juraj Mikus and Chris DiDomenico pick so many players  before landing  Gunnarsson?

That said, scouting is a team game. Player evaluation involves checks and double checks made by different scouts. The Leafs relied  almost exclusively on the input of Tommie Bergman, a Swede, a former NHLer and the team’s Chief European Scout.

Gunnarsson is from Orebro, a 700-year city of 120,000 in the middle of Sweden.  It has no distinguished list of alumni athletes and Gunnarsson, while a good player, was far from dominant. He did not play for MoDo, the Elite League’s glamour team.

“I was never, never the best player on my team,” Gunnarsson said. “When we were 12 or 13 we played up to make one better team and one not that good. I was on the better team but not the top two pairs.”

The year he was selected, Gunnarsson was up and down his Swedish elite team.

“When I was drafted, it was just a bonus,” he said. “The NHL was a dream but I had goals. I wanted to make the teams I was trying for.  That was what I was thinking about.”

Gunnarsson was a touch slow and while he was six-foot-two, he was skinny. He wasn’t overly physical and did not own any startling offensive skills.

Despite never reaching a prominent position in the hockey player food chain, he continued to progress.  He worked out assiduously and pushed his weight to 200 pounds while boosting his footspeed.

His two dominant qualities are impossible to quantify and you can only see them if you know exactly where to look.

First, he is competitive and resilient.

“I just hate to lose,” Gunnarsson said. “That probably came from my dad. He was my coach. I wanted to impress him and I just never gave up.”

Second he had hockey sense

“That was Thommie’s  call and what he liked about Carl is that he made smart decisions on the ice,” Morrison said. “He needed to get stronger and Thommie said you won’t notice him but his hockey sense is what distinguishes him. He’s not a flashy player and he’s an easy guy to miss.”

Gunnarsson did play on Sweden’s World Championship team at 23 but that is often a reflection of the fortunes of the player’s primary NHL team. The Leafs, out of the playoffs for six seasons, have made impressive contributions to the springtime tournament. But Gunnarsson did everything well and at the highest levels, basic competency as much as individual gifts, keeps players in the NHL.
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