Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Gunnarsson brought in to help defense transition pucks

Defenseman gives Blues top-four player, minutes eater; rehabbing hip injury

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the Blues traded away fan favorite Roman Polak to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the NHL Draft, it signified a sort of changing of the guard.

The Blues have been known as a defensive group with a good mix of puck movers and guys that play a rugged, in-your-face style. Polak exhibited the latter predominantly and led in that area along with veteran Barret Jackman.

Although the Blues still have guys that can play the physical role when needed, general manager Doug Armstrong viewed his group of blueliners as one that could use an infusion of new energy ...  and a new style.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Alexander Steen (20) and Carl Gunnarsson (36) will be teammates with the
Blues this season after Gunnarsson was acquired via trade.

Enter Carl Gunnarsson into the foray. 

Gunnarsson, acquired this past summer for Polak and a fourth-round pick, has shown the ability to play aggressive hockey, but is best known for his puck-moving and skating ability.

The Los Angeles Kings, winners of two of the past three Stanley Cups, along with the Chicago Blackhawks, who also own two Cups in the past five seasons, utilize their defensemen in contrasting styles. The Kings play that tough, rugged and punishing style in their zone. The Blackhawks use a more skillful, get the puck and move it quickly up the ice plan.

After three straight strong regular seasons that haven't translated into playoff success, the Blues seem to be leaning towards giving the the latter a try.

"I believe the game is very puck-oriented now," Armstrong said after the draft. "... Ken (Hitchcock) wants to use the middle of the ice. We want to make quick, direct passes and get up on the attack. I think Gunnarsson's into that. 

"This isn't something that's related to one playoffs. This is something that we're looking to improve our group of four defensemen and is something that we wanted to do. It's a left shot for a right shot as much as anything."

Gunnarsson described his game as "Good first pass, more all-around guy. Not flashy in any way. The last couple years I've played more on the PK (penalty kill). I know this D's got skilled D. What more do they need? The PK is more what I'm used to. I'll do whatever it takes. I'm more of an adjustable, all-around guy."

Gunnarsson was brought in to enhance the Blues' top four group, perhaps to give Kevin Shattenkirk a consistent partner. Although Hitchcock wouldn't rule out breaking up the reliable tandem of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, it certainly gives the veteran Blues coach options.

"I'll play with whoever they think is best," Gunnarsson said. "I'll take a hit, I'll give a hit. It's fine. I'm not the biggest guy, I'm not the strongest guy. I try to put some smartness in it, too."

The trade caught the 6-foot-2, 196-pound Gunnarsson by surprise. He had been a mainstay on the Leafs' suspect defense for all five seasons after Toronto drafted the Orebro, Sweden native in the seventh round of the 2007 NHL Draft. But after some time to digest going to a new city, a new team and a new conference, Gunnarsson, who is slowly gaining back his form after off-season hip surgery, is anxious to be a Blue.

"You never know when it's going to happen, but I didn't see it coming," said Gunnarsson, who had surgery in early May after the Leafs' season ended. "A little bit of a shock, but then it feels good to come down here. Playing these guys for the last couple seasons, it was really, really tough. After the initial kind of shock, it feels really good.

"I thought about (the trade) the first couple days after it happened. You never know who is making the call, who wanted it like this. So why not look at it in a good way? They probably wanted me here and just try to see the positives. I'm coming to a good team. Toronto really struggled every year I was there, made the playoffs once. Coming here, the atmosphere, everyone's confident. It's a great group, it's a good team. ... Getting traded, I could have ended up anywhere. But this team, who last season who we played twice, I think that was the toughest team we met. I thought they were going to go deeper, but the West is tough. It's really, really tough to make the playoffs."

Gunnarsson, who had three goals and 17 points to go with a plus-12 rating and a career-high 34 penalty minutes in 80 games for a Leafs team last season that allowed 256 goals and was minus-25 in goal differential, joined his new teammates on the ice Monday for the first time. He has been in town for a month and working out off-ice and skating on his own the past week to two weeks. The informal skates thus far have limited him to 10-15 minutes of skating drills without any contact. 

"That's how you've got to take it, slow and step by step," Gunnarsson said. "I was out with the boys but just some flow drills, feeling the puck a bit and see what kind of pace I'm at and where I'm at compared to the other boys. 

"I'm taking baby steps here, step by step. I've still got some ways to go. It was just good to be out there. You never know. One day, it might just feel super as long as you don't take any steps back."

Gunnarsson, who has 15 goals and 86 points in 304 career games, said the hip injury was something that bothered him for the past couple seasons. Despite averaging 19 minutes, 24 seconds of ice time last season, Gunnarsson played through the joint discomfort.

"(Surgery) was something I had to get done," he said. "We didn't make the playoffs, so  I thought it was going to be a long summer. Recovery time is still long, but if there's a good time to do it, now was the time. ... I took a lot of things into consideration, especially how I felt the last couple years with no playoffs, long summer, how my contract had two more years. I just thought about all that and I felt if I was going to do it, this was the time. If not, I'm going to have to wait another two, three years.

"Right now it's just the first step to see how I was with the boys, feel the puck a bit and we'll try to gradually build into it to hopefully soon be able to do a full practice. You never know a timeline. I wish I could say, but I've got nothing here. We'll see. We'll take it day by day. If it feels good, we'll try to push it even more. If not, we've just got to stay where we're at and see how it feels (again)."

Gunnarsson will obviously be limited when camp begins.

"We're going to go really slow," Hitchcock said. "He's certainly not going to play any games the first part of camp. How much he participates will be up to him and the trainers. Whether he skates with the group or by himself, we'll do what's best. We're going to get his conditioning level up to where he's happy and we're happy before we start grinding him into the mix.

"We want to go really slow here and make sure -- he's a really durable guy, played 82 games with his injury last year. Now, we just want to get it 100 percent so we don't ever have to talk about it again. The league's experience with this type of injury is when you try to force it too early, it ends up being an issue all the time. So we'll just go slow and take it easy."

The sooner Gunnarsson can get acclimated with his teammates, the better since there isn't any experience there with his new teammates.

"I don't know much about him," Shattenkirk said of Gunnarsson. "I talked to a couple friends from Toronto and they've only had a lot of positive things to say about him. Just a really solid, great skater, very smooth, just kind of a shutdown guy. They said his nickname in Toronto was 'Baby Lidstrom' so any time you can kind of earn that, it's pretty high grade.
(Getty Images)
The acquisition of Carl Gunnarsson (pictured) signifies the Blues' change
to a more puck-transitioning team.

"Everyone kind of talks about how we're not a very physical team on the blue line now, but I think the way we play as a team is more physical than most teams in the league. ... Roman was obviously someone that had that brute strength that not many people had in this league, but we like to play quick, we like to make a good transition and breakouts."

The Blues open on-ice camp Friday and begin the preseason Sunday in Columbus. The real target will be if Gunnarsson is ready on Oct. 9, when the Blues open the regular season against the New York Rangers.

"That's what I'm hoping for, but we've still got a month until we get going," Gunnarsson said. "It's not impossible, but it's so tough to say. ... It's been kind of weird. It's been up and down. Some days I feel good, some days it's a little bit worse. It's so tough to say. I wish for myself, too, that I could say, this is the day I'm going to be going. We'll see, but I'm anxious because in the locker room, everything's great. No problem fitting in here. It's going to be a smooth transition, too, when I get back on the ice. I can be another one of the boys in a sense."

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