The regular season is fast approaching. The Blues have some new faces this season, and it leaves fans wondering how this roster will shape up. For the blockbuster acquisition of Paul Stastny, it was an easy pill to swallow. We acquired a true center, and all we lost was some money from the owners bank. Then we were faced with the acquisition of Carl Gunnarsson. Gunnarsson was on the top defensive pairing of the 38-36-8 Toronto Maple Leafs. To acquire such a defenseman, we lost Roman Polak. We also gained a draft pick, but for the purpose of this article, we will be looking at the immediate impact of this trade, not the possibility of gaining a player who could be developed over a few seasons. Polak often played on our bottom pairing on defense. At face value obtaining a top pairing defenseman for our bottom pairing defenseman seems like an automatic win. Looks can be deceiving.
The general reaction from both teams when the trade was announced was disgust. Leaf fans moaned they had lost their best defensive player for someone who looks worse in comparison. Blues fan's have a soft spot for the powerful Czech and didn't want to see him go. Enough articles have been written pronouncing one side a winner or a loser. I have read enough obscure stats to choke a goat comparing the two players. Stats can be an amazing tool to use when comparing two players. Especially players of similar age who play the same position. So how could it be that the stats could lie?
Carl Gunnarsson played against better competition with arguably a weaker defenseman in his pairing. In most stats he seems to come out on top. His Corsi Rel is -10.6 compared to Polak's -12.5. He ever has a better P/60 stat: 0.736 compared to Polak's 0.632. So you ask, how could the Blues possibly be a loser in this trade? How could Toronto possibly be a winner? To put it simply, I believe this is the rare lose/lose trade.
The Blues have inherited a young defenseman with injury problems who is making his way back from hip surgery. In professional sports there is never any way of knowing if an athlete will return to form after a surgery. Beyond rolling the dice on the unknown, the Blues lost a powerful penalty killer. Polak was our second team defense against the PK. At the end of the season, St. Louis had the 2nd ranked PK. This was in no small part to Roman Polak. In shorthanded situations, Polak was had a Corsi for% Rel of +6.1. His GA/20 was best among all defenders on the PK. In fact, with Polak on the ice, the Blues gave up 9 fewer goals than with fellow gritty defenseman Barret Jackman one the ice. Carl Gunnarsson, by comparison had a Corsi for% rel of -1.5% in shorthanded situations.
Polak was never the most productive in 5v5 situations. Most all of his numbers pale in comparison to Gunnarsson's at full strength play. His true value to the Blues was on the PK, where he excelled. He was a major reason that the Blues were able to rank as highly as they did last season against the PK, Gunnarsson should be able to fill in for Polak in even strength play just fine. I don't seem him contributing many game saving or winning plays from the bottom defensive pairing. Gunnarsson, like Polak, is not an offensive minded defenseman, so don't expect fireworks. He will not; however, be able to fill in for Polak on the PK. If he is placed in that position there will surely be a drop off in play. The Blues lose out in this situation. The PK and PP lines are some of the most important in hockey. Penalties will always happen, and the inability to defend in shorthanded situations will lose games quickly.
So, Toronto gets a powerful PK player. They win, right? Not so fast. Toronto was horrible on the PK last season. They were also horrible on general defense. Gunnarsson was their best defensive player and was often used to mask the deficiencies of his teammates. Supplying a stabilizing force to the PK unit will only go so far when your team is being beaten 5v5. Polak will be playing in the 4 or 5 hole in Toronto in their defense. That means everyone above him gets a bump up. Their play last season made most of Toronto's defensemen look like they were playing too high in the defensive pairings. Now they will be playing even higher, and it looks to be undeservedly so. Polak was a key player for the Blues PK, but when surrounded by far inferior play in Toronto, don't expect him to be a savior for their PK unit.
St. Louis gets noticeably weaker on the PK while gaining little on the bottom end of their defensive roster. Toronto get's massively weaker on even strength and gains a slight boost to their PK. This trade is still a head scratcher. Only time will tell if this trade has silver linings for either team. I, for one, certainly hope it does. I wish Roman Polak nothing but the best, and will consider myself a fan of his regardless of what team he skates for. Being a die hard Blues fan, I must now root for Gunnarsson. I hope in time I will also become a fan of him for reasons more than the fact that he currently skates for the note.