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What Is Going On With Carl Gunnarsson?

For three weeks the Blues defenseman hasn’t played two games in a row.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at St. Louis Blues
Carl pays attention.
Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

I’m sure Carl Gunnarsson is a nice guy. His teammates seem to like him. His name is never mixed up in drug cartel news or dog fighting rings. He stays out of trouble. He’s nondescript. And that’s the problem. He’s so out of the spotlight, you hardly know if he’s playing. And judging by his recent game log, he isn’t playing that often which makes us question his role on the St. Louis Blues moving forward under Mike Yeo.

The Blues have had 23 games in 2017. He’s played in 10 of those games. In fairness, he was hurt back on Jan. 7 and placed on IR on Jan. 11 with a lower body injury. Was it a bruise or a strain or toe fungus? We may never know. But his stay on the shelf was short and he was taken off IR on Jan. 15. He returned to the lineup for the Capitals game on Jan. 19 after missing six games. That means he’s been a healthy scratch seven other games in January and February. Pretty often in February.

Carl didn’t play last night against Florida.

Carl played the game before at Buffalo.

Carl didn’t play against Vancouver.

Carl played the game in Detroit.

Carl didn’t play at Montreal.

Carl played at Toronto.

Carl didn’t play at Ottawa.

Carl played at Philadelphia. And in fact he played three straight games before that. But he had 10 days off and two games not in the lineup before that.

Let’s add all that up. Carl has played in eight games since coming back from IR and has watched six games from the press box as a healthy scratch. And this is the guy who has spent time in recent seasons playing with Kevin Shattenkirk, the most sought after free agent to be defenseman in all of the civilized world?

On March 11, 2016, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong extended Gunnarsson’s. The Swedish defenseman still had a couple months left on his old contract, but apparently the front office wanted to do something. They wanted to lock him up. Because when you can keep on your team for three more years a defenseman who has 87 career points in almost 450 games to that point, well you do what you have to do, right?

It's been almost a year since Gunnarsson signed on for three more seasons (two more after this one ends) for $2.9 million a season. He actually agreed to a pay cut; his previous contract paid him $3.45 million last season. Just that fact, that he took less money at age 29, should have been a red flag. Granted, Gunnarsson said he was looking more for a good fit than more money, but when was the last time that actually happened for a real reason? Yeah, I don’t remember either. He liked the team, the prospect of making more than one playoff run. He thought he was set for the foreseeable future.

And then Ken Hitchcock got fired. The last three weeks Gunnarsson can’t play two games in a row. In the seven games he’s played under Yeo, Carl is averaging under 13 minutes a game. Saturday he played 11:38; Wednesday he played 10:59. Since the coaching change, Carl has one point. On the season: no goals, four assists and a minus-6 rating. It would be his first negative +/- since he arrived in St. Louis.

Last year he had three goals and six assists in 72 games, the first time in his career not hitting double digits in points. And he’s playing worse this season.

Only Ivan Barbashev (three points, 12 games) and Robert Bortuzzo (three points, 23 games) have scored fewer points than Gunnarsson this season. And they could catch him in a game or two.

There weren’t that many fans who bemoaned the Gunnarsson extension at the time because he’s making less than $3 million a season. He’s never been much of an impact player, but that means expectations were never that high for him. But that’s not the point.

It sure feels like the coaching staff is trying to figure out how to use him and Bortuzzo. It sure doesn’t look like a matchup situation. Maybe they’re trying to keep both fresh until there’s a trade of another defenseman or something. Maybe it’s an ongoing audition. Maybe they just don’t want to put $2.9 million and an extension that came early in the press box every game.

I’m not saying the money spent on Gunnarsson was a huge mistake, but it’s just another brick in the wall when it comes to some of the extensions negotiated by Armstrong that don’t look so good about a year later.