The 2018-19 St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup Championship, the first in the history of the franchise. But, naturally, some players made a bigger contribution than others. In this series, we’ll look at the Blues’ star players, and see who made the grade and who needs to retake the test.
Carl Gunnarsson took the Stanley Cup to his hometown, Orebro, Sweden, on Aug. 12, 2019. It was an incredible culmination of a difficult season for the St. Louis Blues defender.
Gunnarsson played an important role during the postseason and had some incredible moments. But his injury-riddled regular season clouded his future somewhat. How does the Swede grade out over the course of the whole season?
Injuries, Injuries, Injuries
Gunnarsson began the 2018-19 season on the injured reserve. He tore his ACL in a game on Mar. 23, 2018, and the recovery process, initially slated for sixth months, did not wrap up by opening night. He finally debuted on Nov. 1, playing 13:52 in a win against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Unfortunately, his return was short-lived, and injury would become a constant companion during the season. He suffered an upper-body injury after just seven games back on Nov. 16 in another game against the Golden Knights. That would take him out for 20 additional games, and he would not return until Jan. 3, a game against the Washington Capitals which he would finish at plus-four.
Even then, he couldn’t remain healthy. Another lower-body injury suffered on Feb. 5 against the Florida Panthers would knock Gunnarsson out until late March. He returned on Mar. 25, just seven games before the end of the regular season. In all, he played just 25 games.
Gunnarsson Shines Through Injury
And yet, the Swede managed to shine when he was on the ice. In those 25 games, Gunnarsson had seven points and was a plus-eight. Not historically known as a point scorer, those seven in 25 games were good for .28 per game, surpassing anything after his first four seasons in the league, and more than doubling the rate he scored at across the last three.
Beyond that, Gunnarsson posted some incredible metrics while healthy. He led the Blues by a substantial margin in expected goals (xG) rate vs. on-ice shooting percentage. This suggests that no one on the team generated and finished chances at a better rate than Gunnarsson when he was on the ice.
He backed that stat up with a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 53.9 percent. When Gunnarsson was on the ice, the Blues were controlling play. He made the team better. It’s just unfortunate that he wasn’t there to do so more often.
Still, when the playoffs came, Gunnarsson was finally healthy. He played in 19 of the Blues’ 26 playoff games, scoring a goal and two assists, and registering an impressive plus-six while averaging just under 15 minutes a night. And the one goal he scored was a climactic one, an overtime winner in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Late in the third period, Gunnarsson was on the ice for a shooting chance that rang off the post behind the Boston Bruins’ goaltender Tuuka Rask. In the intermission before overtime, he reportedly saw then-interim head coach Craig Berube in the restroom, and told his bench boss that “I just need one more chance.”
The chance came just 3:50 into the overtime period. After the puck cycled around the zone, Gunnarsson had it at the blueline where he was joined by teammate Ryan O’Reilly. He didn’t like his first look, so he dished it to his center, but O’Reilly quickly passed it back. This time, Gunnarsson received the pass and fired it on as a one-timer, beating Rask to the roof of the net.
It was the first goal Gunnarsson had ever scored in the NHL postseason after 57 games played. It was clearly the most significant goal of his career, breathing life into his team in a series they would ultimately win. As a result, it was one of the most significant goals of the team’s season. Gunnarsson’s stick had helped bring the Blues to glory.
His 2018-19 was enough for the Blues to give Gunnarsson a two-year extension worth $3.5 million. They clearly liked what they saw, despite having limited time to see it.
Still, even with 19 playoff games, Gunnarsson played just barely over half of a regular season’s worth of contests. He made a significant impact during many of his games and scored one of the climactic goals of the season, but there simply isn’t enough evidence to give him a conclusive grade.
If this season’s version of Gunnarsson is here to stay and remains healthy, there’s no question that in a year’s time he will receive a strong grade, possibly even an A or an A+. The $1.75 million salary cap hit he will play under could make him an incredible value for the Blues. But for now, it’s difficult to say quite what he is. He needs to retake the test.
Final Grade: Incomplete
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.