TORONTO — It probably wasn’t the best dining spot for a Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman to not watch hockey, and it definitely wasn’t the best outcome to play out on the 32-foot television screen that flickered at Carl Gunnarsson as he chowed down on some of Real Sports’ pub grub — yet another Boston Bruins’ overtime playoff victory.
After the Leafs lost Game 7 of their first-round series by surrendering three late goals and a fourth in overtime against those same Bruins, Gunnarsson had successfully avoided all things NHL playoffs for a couple of nights. But his efforts would prove pointless at Toronto’s Vegas-ized sports bar, and those soul-sucking Bruins were again making with the late heroics in Game 1 of Round 2 against the New York Rangers.
“I want nothing to do with hockey right now, to be honest. But in that place you can’t avoid it,” says Gunnarsson, 26. “I know a lot of fans are disappointed with what happened. Take that times 10 — that’s how we feel. We were out there. It’s hard to explain, but it’s been a rough couple of days. In a week or so, I’ll just try to forget about what happened and try to pick out the positives to bring into the off-season and into next season. It’s tough to do. That’s not the way we want to go out.”
Days after being on the ice for a collapse destined to be replayed and relived on Top 10 countdowns for years, Gunnarsson slaps on a T-shirt and a smile to attend a promotional event in support of Canada’s championship of floorball — a floor hockey hybrid that is big in his native Sweden, where “Gunnar” will soon be bound to spend the offseason and decide his future.
Gunnarsson’s second two-year contract with the Leafs is up, and the seventh-rounder from 2007 will be a restricted free agent this summer. The blue-liner’s last round of negotiations saw his annual salary approximately double to $1.35 million, but it’s believable when he says he hasn’t considered his strategy heading back to the table.
One gets the sense, the Leafs -- at least some of them -- are still in mourning.
“The ball is in their court right now, so they got to get it moving,” Gunnarsson says of the Leafs, who have seven unrestricted and seven restricted free agents to figure out this summer. “The four years I’ve had here have been great. We’ll see what they want from me next year. I haven’t thought about what I want.”
Gunnarsson intends to sit down with his agent this week and devise a plan for his future. For now, his mind is preoccupied with the recent past.
With time winding down in Game 7 and an extra attacker on the ice for Boston, Gunnarsson was the closest man to Milan Lucic when he scored the Bruins’ third goal; he was in the slot when Patrice Bergeron scored the game-tying fourth. A plus-5 through the season, Gunnarsson finished the game as a minus-2 and the series as a minus-7.
Though pressed, the stay-at-home defender says he can’t quite recall what coach Randy Carlyle told his troops during the intermission prior to overtime.
“It’s all more of a blur right now,” he says. “I can’t really remember. There was a lot of things going on there. The feeling in the room, the first couple of minutes everyone was down that we let that lead go. And everyone eventually rose up and had the feeling that we can’t just let this slip away because we’re so close right now. And I think we did a good job in the overtime coming back and going for it; we just didn’t sit back. It’s hard. When they’ve been pressuring you for the last 10, 15 minutes in the third, it’s easier to sit back. It’s tough to come back from that. We did a good job of that – and that’s what we talked about in the intermission.”
Still, for both Gunnarsson and the Leafs, there is much to look forward to. The Swedish defenceman has thrice represented his country at the world championships and has an outside shot of playing his way onto the 2014 Olympic national team.
“We got a lot of good D-men,” Gunnarsson says of Sweden, “and there’s a lot of young Swedish defencemen coming up right now too. It’s going to be tough to get in there, but that is a dream, and I really want to go. I’m going to do my best to have a good (NHL) season -- not just for that; I want a good season anyways -- but that’s another goal to shoot for, and hopefully I can get in there.”
As for the Leafs, Gunnarsson says his team must remember how well they played to defy the odds and push Boston to the limit. The '13 Leafs also grew in terms of player accountability, as Gunnar's regular partner, captain Dion Phaneuf, got help from a cadre of team leaders -- a crucial element he says was missing in 2011-12.
“We needed it last year. Dion is a leader in the room and on the ice, but we needed a couple more guys to step up and take ownership of the group, of the team. This year it’s been way better,” Gunnarsson says. “(Joffrey) Lupul, (Clarke) MacArthur, (Colton) Orrsie… Johnny Liles is great in the room, too. A couple more guys who usually don’t say much but step up every once in a while. It doesn’t have to be much, but once in a while keeping guys accountable for whatever it might be. We got more from everyone this year.”