Keith Aulie vs. Carl Gunnarsson

The other day, I did a break down of the comparison between Luke Schenn and Dion Phaneuf based largely on their play last season defensively. That discussion largely focused on which of those two should be "leading" the Leafs defensively, and really the results came out in a wash. Phaneuf played more difficult competition, but Schenn's numbers were slightly more flattering. You either chalk that up to better team mates and harder competition for Phaneuf, or better play for Schenn, but really it's hard to prove conclusively either way.

The discussion for me ended up cementing the opinion (which I've had for a while) that Phaneuf and Schenn weren't all that dissimilar defensively last year, and really if Schenn keeps developing, he should eventually take over as one of the key shut down guys for the Leafs. Considering he just signed a 5 year contract, and he's still only 21 (turning 22 on November 2nd) then that leaves lots of room for growth.

But where does that leave the rest of the blue line. Follow after the jump for a bit more of a dissection of the situation.

Well depending on who you listen to, that may or may not be settled. On MapleLeafs.com, Mike Ulmer recently posted on his blog the following:

Terrific work in the second half of the season make Phaneuf and Aulie the team’s go-to pair (author's emphasis added). That might only last 10 years or so...

That leaves Gunnarsson, a notoriously slow starter...

Gunnarsson staggered from the gate last season and was scratched 13 times. He ended up earning 20 plus minutes of ice time through the final quarter of the season. With the heightened level of competition, leaving the press box for top four minutes won’t be as easy.

"It’s like in the morning," Gunnarsson joked. "It took me a while to wake up. I have to change that and be ready from the start."

In his third season, Gunnarsson knows what was forgiven in his first and second year won’t be overlooked in his third.

"Last year there was some good and some bad parts. If I can play as I want and as they want, we’ll see the kind of player I am."

The implication is that Gunnarsson is in a fight for a bottom pairing role with this year's edition of the Leafs, while Aulie's role is guaranteed. This doesn't surprise me as a perception, but I'm not sure it's the best choice.

Keith Aulie was a key component of the trade with Calgary that brought Phaneuf to the Leafs in exchange for Ian White, Matt Stajan, and Niklas Hagman. Brian Burke apparently demanded that he be included in the trade, in a fashion similar to the inclusion of Cody Franson in this past off season's deal with Nashville. That likely means both Aulie and Franson are in Burke's vision of the Leafs blue line long term... as are Schenn and Phaneuf.

In a sense that works against Gunnarsson as he was drafted by JFJ, and signed by Cliff Fletcher. This being said, it's not like Ron Wilson has refused to play the Swede, and it's not like he's been a complete screw up in his time on the Leafs blue line. In fact, earlier this past off-season, back on May 14th, I wrote a posting that endeavoured to compare Gunnarsson to his peers around the NHL and illustrate his value as a D man. To summarize some of the conclusions again (if you choose to not follow that link) they go as follows:

1. He compares favourably to the likes of Jason Demers (SJS), Dan Girardi (NYR), or Alex Edler (VAN) over his first two years in the NHL.

2. He has far more offensive skills than the likes of Aulie or Schenn.

In an effort to track players by position at comparable ages, I made use of Hockey-Reference and created a list of every D man to play in the NHL since the 2000-01 season. That list had 3095 player seasons, which covered D men between the ages of 18 and 40. Because BehindTheNet's data only goes back to the 2007-08 season, I made use of Hockey-Reference's Point Shares system to assess comparable players in the same age group. Ideally I was looking for players with similar Defensive and Offensive Point Share totals, who had played a comparable number of games and seen similar ice time. It's not an ideal method, but it did provide some interesting names.

In comparing the results with respect to Gunnarsson and Aulie (click here for the Google Docs spreadsheet), we can see that Gunnarsson's rookie season, at the age of 23, would make his closest comparables over the past decade or so Matt Carle, Andrej Meszaros, Ladislav Smid, Jiri Fischer, Kyle McLaren, Toni Lydman, Tim Gleason, and David Tanabe. Fischer, McLaren and Lydman were never NHL All-Stars, but all played a reliable role in the top 4 on NHL teams as their careers moved forward, some of them of Championship caliber. Fischer was the 4th/5th D man on some very skilled Detroit clubs until he left the league due to a heart ailment. Lydman played a top 4 role with the Flames and then the Sabres before most recently moving on as a UFA to Anaheim. McLaren played 12 years in the NHL between Boston and San Jose but injury woes and problems with consistency limited him to only 719 games. He averaged 21:55 over his career in ice time though, and was a top 4 D man for most of his time with both teams.

Gunnarsson's 24 year old season (2010-11) had him producing similarly to the 24 year old years of Keith Ballard, Tom Poti, Eric Brewer, Matt Carle, Zbynek Michalek, Joni Pitkanen, Chris Campoli, James Wisniewski, Denis Grebeshkov, and former Leaf Danny Markov. While I don't think all of these players are NHL greats by any stretch, I would think Keith Aulie's play this coming training camp would have to be VERY impressive to supplant a player of that caliber.

Another Ironic factor at this point in the proceedings is, Aulie's production as a 21 year old last season closely follows many of the same players Gunnarsson is comparable to at the age of 23 and 24. Names like Tim Gleason, Steve McCarthy, Jack Johnson, and Ladislav Smid come up for BOTH players in an age comparison. What strikes me as odd is that by insisting on having Aulie replace Gunnarsson, you're in some ways almost arguing that a younger, less effective version of Gunnarsson should replace him.

If NHL talent should be peaking around the age of 25, and Carl Gunnarsson is going to be 25 this season, I fail to see the logic in slotting in a 22 year old who is still developing to that level in the line up in his stead. The ONE area that I feel Aulie surpasses Gunnarsson by most counts is in physical stature. Aulie is a beast of a player, and I suppose the idea that a huge guy down low in the paint would present more of a problem to incoming forwards is a valid concern. That's largely the reason Komisarek was signed as a free agent, and why Schenn is a player the Leafs brass is so content with.

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