While Minnesota fans are singing the praises of likely permanent top pairing Swedish rookie defenseman Jonas Brodin, there is another young Swedish defenseman in the system that could soon be turning heads in the State of Hockey. That young man, who bears a striking resemblance to an Elf in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies, is Daniel Gunnarsson.
Gunnarsson, 21, has played the past two seasons for Lulea of the Swedish Elite League, coincidentally the same team 2010 Wild draft pick Johan Gustafsson backstops as the team’s No. 1 goaltender. In watching Gustafsson, there must have been something the Minnesota scouting staff liked about Gunnarsson, as they officially welcomed him into the fold with their fifth round selection in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Gunnarsson rewarded the Wild’s faith in him with six goals and 11 assists for 17 points and a plus-10 rating in 53 games in leading Lulea’s defensive corps in scoring this season.
Not only is Gunnarsson just another testament to Minnesota’s knack for drafting quality players in the later rounds, he has size, skill and, from the sounds of it, a pretty good shot. At 6’4” and 201-pounds, his combination of size and skill make him a very intriguing option for Minnesota heading into a year with a lower salary cap and a need for a solid top-four defenseman. If they can fill that hole within the system, it’s less money spent on an unrestricted free agent.
If Gunnarsson does come across the pond next season, his likely competition for a top-4 spot in Minnesota would be Marco Scandella, Tom Gilbert and 2012 7th overall pick Mathew Dumba. Of those three, Scandella will likely be the stiffer competition. Like Gunnarsson, Marco is big but does have 89 regular season and five postseason games with Minnesota under his belt. He also played a huge role in limiting Patrick Kane in Minnesota’s first round series with Chicago this spring. There may be no better time than now for him to claim a fulltime roster spot in a Wild sweater.
Why isn’t Tom Gilbert, a veteran of 447 career regular season NHL games, more of a challenge than Scandella? Well, quite frankly, this past season was certainly not the best or brightest of his career. While his 13 points were third-best for the Wild’s defensive corps, his negative-11 rating was the worst rating on the backend and third-worst on the team. Gilbert started out the season strong on the second pairing, notching three goals and four assists for seven points in the first 10 games. He would notch just six more assists in the next 33 games while being demoted to the bottom pairing at times.
Towards the end of the season, it seemed like Tom Gilbert and Justin Falk were always the defensemen shuffling dejectedly to the bench after allowing a goal. If Gilbert doesn’t get his game back on track soon, he could find himself permanently outside the Wild top-4 defensemen or even traded.
So what does Gunnarsson bring to the table? According to EliteProspects.com:
Gunnarsson is a big and pretty strong defenseman with impressive mobility and a good two-way game. Plays a pretty solid and simple game in his own end and has good offensive skills too. Has a very good shot.
Hockey’s Future adds:
Gunnarsson is looking like a pretty nice pick by the Wild. In his second year of eligibility, Gunnarsson may have been scouted by accident, playing with Johan Gustafsson for Lulea of the Swedish Elite League. Nonetheless, a late-bloomer with a couple of decent tools is a fine addition to the prospect group. A team can always use more defensive depth, and this is very true of the Wild. Gunnarsson chipped in six goals from the blue line this season, and while he has not really been a scorer in his career, a shot can take time to develop. Lulea was one of the best defensive teams in a league that tends that way, and Gunnarsson was its top-scoring defenseman. If this player can translate his defensive zone reads to the North American game, he could potentially be a top-four option with value on the power play. He recently turned 21, already has good size, and was part of a deep playoff run this season. The Wild scouts have excelled at extracting value from mid and late round picks. Gunnarsson for now appears to be one of those.
Let me be clear—Gunnarsson isn’t the second coming of Jonas Brodin. However, he certainly projects to be a very reliable top-4 defender that provides size, depth, grit and both offensive and defensive ability to Minnesota’s defensive corps. He also gives Minnesota another right-shot option for the left side, as all of the team’s current right-shots appear uncomfortable playing left side defense. If nothing else, Gunnarsson is another Swedish-born defender and, as everyone knows, there’s no such thing as too many Swedish defensemen.