TORONTO – Sixteen of the 20 players who dressed for the Leafs on the night of November 14, 2009 are now gone. That night, with the Calgary Flames in town, a little-known defender and seventh-round selection from Sweden made his NHL debut. Nearly four years later and only Carl Gunnarsson and the trio of Phil Kessel, Nik Kulemin and Colton Orr still remain in Toronto.
"We've been through a lot," Gunnarsson said of the remaining handful during a conversation with TSN.ca earlier this week. "Ups, mostly downs, but last year was a big change. It feels good."
With a sense of ownership rivaling few in the room in terms of longevity, Gunnarsson believes the time is right for him to emerge as a leader. On the verge of his fifth season in Toronto, he wants the responsibility that comes with steering the ship.
"And that's something I expect from myself," he said, "taking that next step and hopefully have just as good a season as last year."
Leadership is imparted in many different forms. Gunnarsson just hopes to find his suited brand and help guide the Leafs up another rung on the ladder, following a long-awaited playoff appearance last year.
"Some guys talk a lot, some guys don't," Gunnarsson said of leadership. "But if you can say something in the room that's good or if you can just help the new guys out with whatever it might be ... I've been here for awhile, had Randy for a season and a half. I'm one of those guys that kind of knows what it's all about. And obviously I need to be reminded too, but if I can help some other guys get into it quicker that's part of it."
Valued as a quiet and stable cog on defence, one upon whom the coaching staff can rely on for extended minutes in varied situations, the Leafs wisely chose to keep Gunnarsson in the fold, signing him to a three-year contract worth $9.45 million this past summer.
"They put a lot of trust in me," he beamed proudly of the deal. "They, as I do too, have some high expectations. It feels good that they really want me on the team. That's how I looked at it. Especially this year when a lot of guys don't have contracts, cap is lower. That was huge for me."
While he struggled some in his sophomore season, the Leafs haven't had to worry much about the reliable 6-foot-2 defender, who tends to go about his business quietly. Now with 224 games of NHL experience, Gunnarsson believes he's better prepared to hurdle past adversity at this stage in his career, wiser than when he first made the jump from Sweden. "Experience, that's knowledge too," he grinned.
Suiting up for 37 games last season, Gunnarsson was bothered by a troublesome issue in his hip from the outset of training camp. The injury persisted all year – he missed 11 games – but with an off-season of rest and treatment there was an expectation that he would feel better in the fall. Early reports suggest that being the case, this after a series of two-a-day on-ice workouts just this past week.
"Right now where I am from last year it's a huge difference I think," Gunnarsson said. "Not saying that I'm not going to have to get treatment or stay on top of it everyday because that's what it's going to be. I think that's how it is for every injury. If you have a knee surgery or you strained your ACL or whatever it might be, you've got to stay on top of that. Some guys play with braces or whatever it might be. I feel way better from last year so that's a good feeling coming into this season. Hopefully it's going to stay on this level and whenever we get a couple days off just treat it the way it needs to be treated."
One of the few known commodities and a source of understated stability, the Swedish defender's ongoing health is quietly crucial to the makeup of the Toronto defence. While maybe not perfectly cast for the role Gunnarsson has nonetheless proven he can absorb difficult minutes on a first pairing with Dion Phaneuf.
Chuckling as he describes himself as "old and wise" after a stuffed four years in the league, Gunnarsson knows he represents a rare symbol of longevity in Toronto and he's now ready to do his part and lead.
[i] Tyler Bozak made his NHL debut on October 13 before returning to the Marlies until January.