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Maple Leafs sign Carl Gunnarsson to two-year, $2.6M contract extension

Jun 14, 2011, 3:44 PM EDT

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Luke Schenn; Carl Gunnarsson AP

Despite maintaining the troubling “zero playoff berths since the lockout” label, the Toronto Maple Leafs showed significant glimpses of promise late in the 2010-11 season. A big part of that surge came from rookie goalie James Reimer, who recently signed a three-year contract extension with the Leafs.

GM Brian Burke often gravitates toward big stars, but he also understands the importance of cultivating young talent. The Leafs took the next step in wrapping up their young pending free agents by handing defenseman Carl Gunnarsson a two-year contract extension worth $2.6 million.

Gunnarsson has been a pleasant surprise for the Maple Leafs, who drafted him in the seventh round (194th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. He managed to play a solid chunk of the last two seasons, appearing in 43 games in 2009-10 (15 points, 21:26 time on ice per game) and 68 (20 points, 18:15 time on ice per game) in 10-11.

Michael Traikos explains that Gunnarsson really seemed to blossom once he received more offensive opportunities after Tomas Kaberle was traded to the Boston Bruins.

“We’re very happy with his development,” said general manager Brian Burke, “and what he needs to do is come up with an 82-game season. He had a real good second-half each of the last two years. But he’s got to start better than he has.”

Indeed, Gunnarsson had one goal and three assists in the first three months of the 2010-11 season. But then seemed to benefit from extra ice time when Tomas Kaberle was traded, scoring three goal and 13 assists in the final four months of the schedule.

Re-signing Gunnarsson takes one more problem off the table for Burke, who faces some tough decisions this off-season. Beyond getting into a likely bidding war for the services of Brad Richards, Burke also must make some choices regarding pending free agents.

While there are plenty of other names they must decide to keep or part ways with, the biggest negotiations will take place between the Leafs and three free agents: Clarke MacArthur, Luke Schenn and Tyler Bozak. Here’s what Burke said about the major negotiations with those players.

Now that Gunnarsson is signed, expect the team to now focus on locking up restricted free agent Luke Schenn. The 21-year-old was arguably Toronto’s most valuable defenceman last season, scoring a career-best five goals and 22 points in 82 games.

The Leafs are also expected to try and re-sign Clarke MacArthur, Tyler Bozak and Tim Brent this summer.

“It’s not time-sensitive, for either player,” Burke said of negotiations. “We’ve told Clarke if he wants to file for arbitration he can go ahead and file for arbitration. That’s part of the process. That’s part of the collective bargaining agreement. But we anticipate that he’s going to be under contract and play for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fall.”

Much like many other teams – from contenders to hopefuls – the Maple Leafs look like they have an interesting off-season in front of them. At least they won’t have to worry about keeping Reimer or Gunnarsson at a reasonable price, though.

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