Is Gunnarsson the odd man out?
The Toronto Maple Leafs' 5-2-1 start to the National Hockey League 2011-12 regular season has been somewhat deceptive.
That's not to say the Leafs, who are the youngest team in the NHL, have not deserved its 11 points in the standings, but the wins have accumulated despite the team's sluggish opening periods and mediocre team defense.
That said, the youthful Leafs have displayed plenty of vigour which has allowed them to escape with points in the standings---and you can't ask for more from a young team, really.
Nonetheless, it's difficult to gauge whether the Leafs are for real or on the verge of struggling with consistency---as fans have frequently witnessed since the lockout. While the Leafs no doubt have a solid core of youth in Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Luke Schenn, Nikolai Kulemin, Jake Gardiner and others, the team sorely lacks veteran leadership---John Michael Liles is the oldest player at 30, and David Steckel, 29, was considered a veteran presence upon his acquisition. This is by no means a negative, as the Leafs have long been criticized for a lack of emphasis on youth. But, with the team taking shape and an emphasis on the playoffs, a glaring need for the Leafs is a veteran scorer. Not a player who would occupy the bottom lines, but a top-six forward who can provide leadership for the top-six unit.
Names that have been circulating in the rumour mill are Shane Doan and Brenden Morrow to name a couple, but this should be taken with a grain of salt. Regardless, when Burke does pull the trigger on a significant trade, one would assume it will include a veteran scorer coming the Leafs' way.
But who would be on the way out?
The players frequently mentioned have been Tyler Bozak, Carl Gunnarsson and, as of yesterday, Cody Franson. Pierre LeBrun reported that the Leafs are "listening to offers for Franson," but considering he's a frequent healthy scratch and has underwhelming statistics at this point, it's hard to imagine anything more than a late-round draft pick in exchange for his services.
And this is why it doesn't make sense to trade Franson. The best thing the Leafs can do is hope he returns to form and settles down on the blueline. Trading a 24-year-old offensive defenseman for less than his market value won't net the Leafs much in return, and it certainly won't do them any favors if he decides to breakout.
So, which defenseman should be shipped out then? Well, Gunnarsson certainly seems like the logical choice. If the Leafs want to trade from a strength, which is too many NHL-quality defensemen---although the defense has not been great in its own end---it will have to relinquish a defender who is actually off to a respectable start. Gunnarsson averages 21:51 TOI/G, third among Leafs defensemen, 2:04 PP TOI/G and 3:52 SH TOI/G, which ranks him first among defensemen while shorthanded. He also looks comfortable alongside Phaneuf, and he only turns 25 on Nov.8.
As Schenn regains his confidence and returns to form, Gunnarsson's shorthanded ice-time should diminish a little, but the point remains that he's been a steady presence on the blueline. But, with Franson in the press box itching for playing time, perhaps Gunnarsson is the odd-man out in Toronto. It's hard to imagine Burke unloading either of Liles or Gardiner (and Komisarek's contract is immovable), and Gunnarsson is a valuable trading chip in a package deal that could involve Bozak or another young forward. If the Leafs in fact acquire a veteran scorer, it will certainly have to relinquish a forward or two, as there's currently a logjam in that area as well---although Clarke MacArthur has been less than spectacular since returning from suspension.
That aside, if the Leafs are indeed playing over its head right now, perhaps it would be wise of Burke to strike a deal soon. Then again, would patience allow Franson to redeem himself with the Leafs and boost his value, so Burke can retain Gunnarsson? Seems like wishful thinking, but at some point this season you can expect a Leafs defenseman to get shipped in a deal for a veteran scorer. I'm confident in that prediction.
Oh yeah, I heard that Keith Aulie guy is pretty good too.
You stay classy, TCL.
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