What About Carl Gunnarsson? - The Cost Of The Future

TORONTO CANADA - DECEMBER 4: Carl Gunnarsson #36 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his goal against the Boston Bruins during game action at the Air Canada Centre December 4 2010 in Toronto Ontario Canada. (Photo by Abelimages / Getty Images)

Much ink (pixels?) is being devoted to the upcoming contract of Leafs D cornerstone Luke Schenn.  Little has been devoted to Carl Gunnarsson, who is the only one of the two playing in the World Championships Gold Medal game.

Both young men have acquitted themselves well in the NHL thus far, though expectations are far higher with Schenn due to his 5th overall draft position, his 18 year old debut season, and the weight of Leafs nation.  Gunnarsson was selected in the 7th round, 194th overall in the 2007 NHL entry draft, and thus didn't have much in the way of expectations attached.  Follow on after the jump to explore some reasoning behind the valuation of the older of the two young blue liners of the Leafs future.

There are some statistics with respect to Carl Gunnarsson that have largely escaped notice in the wake of the rampant speculation on Schenn's worth to the Leafs.  Most strikingly, Gunnarsson ranks 13th in games played of all players drafted in 2007, with 111.  More shockingly, he is 2nd in games played amongst all defenders drafted in 2007, behind only Karl Alzner of the Washington Capitals, who has played 133 games.  He ranks 14th in points amongst all skaters drafted with 35, and 2nd amongst defenders behind only PK Subban of the Montreal Canadiens who has 40.

Based on those results, I think it is safe to say he's one of the better pickups from that draft.  Here are some further comparisons to shed light on his play thus far with the Leafs.  I ran a search through hockeys-future.com and examined defenders since the lockout that played between 90 and 130 games in their first two NHL seasons, and then ranked them on the basis of TOI, points per 60 minutes, and PPG, just to get a feel for who was productive at a similar rate to Gunnarsson early in their careers, along with their usage, competition, and team quality in their 2nd NHL seasons (if available).

  Name    Team     GP      TOI   Pts Pts/G Pts/60  +/-  Corsi REL QoC Corsi REL QoT OZ FO%* ZS*
Shea Weber NSH 107 2008 50 0.47 1.49 +21 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Jamie McBain CAR 90 1809 40 0.44 1.33 -2 -0.010 0.973 50.3% +1.2
Jason Demers SJS 126 2249 45 0.36 1.20 +24 0.195 0.591 49.0% +1.1
Michael Del Zotto NYR 127 2433 48 0.38 1.18 -25 -0.036 0.003 56.4% -6.8
John Carlson WSH 104 2183 43 0.41 1.18 +32 1.088 0.570 49.8% +2.8
Tom Gilbert EDM 94 2061 39 0.41 1.14 -7 0.695 1.122 48.1% +4.0
Kevin Bieksa VAN 120 2594 48 0.40 1.11 0 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Brett Lebda DET 120 1684 30 0.25 1.07 +25 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Zach Bogosian ATL 128 2585 42 0.33 0.97 -7 0.290 -0.154 44.3% +3.9
Carl Gunnarsson TOR 111 2162 35 0.32 0.97 +6 0.190 0.187 48.8% +2.4
Dan Girardi NYR 116 2276 34 0.29 0.90 +7 0.518 -0.203 58.1% -3.1
Alexander Edler VAN 97 1852 23 0.24 0.75 +9 0.032 1.627 52.1% -3.1
Luke Schenn TOR 149 2840 31 0.21 0.65 -10 -0.310 0.426 50.7% +1.8
Mike Green WSH 92 1412 15 0.16 0.64 -18 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Jeff Schultz WSH 110 1995 21 0.19 0.63 +17 0.013 0.964 52.2% -4.3
Matt Greene EDM 105 1676 12 0.11 0.43 -28 N/A N/A N/A N/A

*note that for these sections, if only one season of data was available it was used.

So what exactly can we derive from the data set above?  Well, based on this list, I'd say it's pretty easy to argue that Gunnarsson is a future top 4 D man, and not a bottom pairing defender.  He may well grow into the power play QB that plays alongside Phaneuf as we saw towards the end of last season.  His numbers in his first two years are very similar to a much more highly touted blue liner, Zach Bogosian, who was actually selected 1 spot before Luke Schenn in the 2008 entry draft, 4th overall.

His Zone Shift is comparable to John Carlson and is amongst the upper end of the group listed.  His Corsi REL QoC is virtually identical to Jason Demers of the Sharks (who is also in his 2nd year), but his Corsi REL QoT is amongst the lowest of these D men.  He's been playing in lower pairings quite frequently, but his level of play is superior to that tier.

Also of obvious note, is the comparison to Luke Schenn after his first 2 years.  Schenn bounced back in a serious way this past year after a rough sophomore slump season.  He also is more noted for his physical play and shot blocking ability which isn't a feature of the above group necessarily.  That being said, it is fairly obvious that Gunnarsson is more developed offensively than Schenn was at the same point of his NHL adjustment.

It is worth noting that Schenn is still only going to be 22 next season, but Gunnarsson is still only 25 next year, and he's likely to continue to improve.  He is currently 3rd in ice time on the Swedish team playing for the Gold Medal at the IIHF World Championships, playing 20:56 per game.  He is also a +7 player, despite only having 2 points himself.  

The Swedes have a team that is deep at forward, but their top D men are still playing in the NHL playoffs (Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall).  Top offensive contributor on the team is David Petrasek, who has never played an NHL game and is 35 years old.  The other names most likely to be familiar to Leaf fans are Staffan Kronwall, Tim Erixon, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and David Rundblad.

Using the comparables from the chart above, and Gunnarsson's potential coming into next season, here are some relevant numbers:

Jason Demers - 2 year contract, $1.25 mill cap hit

Dan Girardi - 2 year contract, $1.55 mill cap hit

Tom Gilbert - 6 year contract, $4 mill cap hit

Jeff Schultz - signed a 1 year deal at $715 K, then one year later signed a 4 year deal, $2.75 mill cap hit

Alex Edler (after his 3rd season) - 4 year contract, $3.25 mill cap hit

Kevin Bieksa (after his 3rd season) - 3 year contract, $3.75 mill cap hit

So from the above list, I think it's clear that it's key to try to lock Gunnarsson up for about 2-3 years under $3 mill a season.  I also think it's obvious that Edmonton is insane, and should not be handing out contracts like that to players like Tom Gilbert (no offense to a half decent D man - but that's ridiculous).  I do think it's worth noting that both the Edler and Bieksa deals were crafted by Dave Nonis, who will likely have a role in the negotiations with Gunnarsson and his agent.

Bogosian, Del Zotto, Carlson, Schenn, and McBain are all either awaiting deals or are a year away from free agency, so we can't use them to compare unfortunately.

In the long run, I think Schenn and Gunnarsson are likely to both cost the Leafs around $3.5 mill or so a season in cap hit.  I think that's a reasonable price to pay for top 4 D men, but if they start to climb much above that, their production needs to warrant it.  Feel free to share your opinions in the comments section.

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