Joel Edmundson brings something the Maple Leafs lack on and off the ice

Carl Gunnarsson would often wander out of his hotel room in the spring of 2019 and invariably see one smiling face waiting for him.

And it was then, in another random lobby in another city the St. Louis Blues were camping out in that Gunnarsson’s mood lifted. As the postseason weeks piled up for the Blues, the lure of travelling to a new city wore off fast. Fatigue was taking hold, round after round. Veteran players pined to be at home with their families.

But Gunnarsson was always drawn to Joel Edmundson. While the playoff bumps and bruises grew larger, Edmundson was “always in a good mood,” says Gunnarsson, and could lift the spirits of his teammates. Plus, Edmundson would never be alone.

“On every team, you’ll have some sort of cliques,” Gunnarsson said. “But Joel gets along with everyone. He can just seamlessly go in between those cliques.”

That’s why the Swedish defenceman, then 32, spent far more time than anticipated that spring alongside Robert Thomas, then 19 and a wide-eyed rookie.

Those aren’t the kinds of groupings you often see. And the Blues themselves were running the risk of becoming fractured after seeing Mike Yeo fired as head coach in November 2018 and found themselves in last place in the NHL in January.

It was Edmundson who brought his team together as the quintessential glue guy.

“As a young guy, you’re trying to fit in,” Thomas said. “And (Edmundson) was the first guy to text me, every single time. He wouldn’t really ask you, he’d tell you, ‘Hey, you’re coming here.’ (Edmundson) is a big part of me developing into who I am today.”

That Blues team won their first and only Stanley Cup.

And now, after Edmundson was acquired just ahead of the trade deadline for 3rd  and 4th round draft picks, the Toronto Maple Leafs will look to Edmundson and his personality – as well as his presence as a steady but physical defenceman – to help bring their team together for what they hope is an equally-long Cup run.

“Everyone loves (Edmundson) in the room,” new Leaf teammate Max Domi said. “He’s probably top three in the league for reputations. I’ve been around for so long and talked to so many guys, and he’s always at the top of the list.”

As a rookie, there were multiple times when Thomas would look side-to-side in astonishment: OK, he was an NHL player out for dinner with teammates at some of St. Louis’ finer establishments, but surely this wasn’t customary in the league, right?

The bill for those dinners would take time to arrive. Because first, Edmundson would hop behind the bar, quickly figure out the restaurant’s audio set-up and then rig it to start playing his own music of choice.

Edmundson’s DJ skills became well-known during his three-season stint in the Montreal Canadiens dressing room, his most recent long-term spot. But in St. Louis, out of adoration for his own playlists and to create memories to bring his teammates together, Edmundson had to branch out.

Arena-ready rock? Check. Hip-hop guaranteed to bring those teammates out of their seat? Check. Sing-a-long country jams?

Again, hold off the check for a little longer so Edmundson and the Blues could make a few memories during gruelling points in the schedule.

“Such a blast,” Thomas said. “(Edmundson) brings a lighthearted energy that is hard for guys to bring every single day. Especially after losses coming down the stretch, you need guys bringing you in. He’s so good at that.”

The Leafs dressing room mood can quickly clench like a bareknuckle boxer’s fist with a few losses. Such is the nature of playing on a team that garners more eyeballs than most and has won one playoff round since 2004. Edmundson’s attitude might come in handy when the temperature rises dramatically in Toronto come springtime.

After all, he has the necessary experience on his CV. Edmundson’s efforts to ensure no teammate was left behind and then remind his team that the end of the world was far away didn’t just resonate during the Blues’ Cup win and his four seasons in St. Louis. He responded just as coolly in the pressure cooker that is the Montreal hockey market.

“(Edmundson) was another guy that did a great job of not getting caught up in the highs and the lows of the exterior pressure,” former Canadiens teammate Mike Matheson said. “Those are those glue guys who you look to in those situations where things can get very tough, especially towards the end of the season, when you’re heading into the postseason. He brought everybody closer.”

It’s one thing to be designated as a high-energy guy who can rally the troops off the ice, but it’s another to buy that goodwill among teammates with your play on the ice. And the towering Edmundson brings what so few Leafs defenders (outside of Simon Benoit) have in their tool belt: A playoff-ready game packed with snarl and experience.

“(Edmundson) is going to add something to the Leafs in the playoffs because he really seems to add something to his game in the playoffs, in my opinion,” Craig Berube, coach of the 2019 Blues, said. “Physical play, being hard to play against, blocking shots, defending. Everything that’s important in the playoffs.”

Edmundson – “Steady Eddy” as he was often referred to by teammates – can also lower the pressure on the ice late in games. He’s the type to willingly step in front of a shot and clear traffic from in front of the Leafs net with ease. And multiple former teammates suggested that could matter all the more if Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe turns to his younger and less-experienced goaltender, NHL rookie Joseph Woll.

What the Leafs might lose in smooth puck-moving ability, (Berube and others insist there’s a sneaky offensive side to his game) they will make up for with a looming presence on the back end many recent Stanley Cup winners have had. His 11 playoff series wins don’t just lap any of his new teammates in that department. Those series are full of blocked shots and constant physicality, which, you may have heard, has a place in the postseason.

“All those things that a lot of the time go unnoticed,” Berube said. “But they don’t go unnoticed by your coach.”

Edmundson’s role within the Leafs might shift over the remainder of the regular season. This is the first time he has been moved at the deadline, and Edmundson deserves time to adjust to Toronto.

“You can prepare for (getting traded at the deadline), but until you go through it, you don’t know what it’s like,” Jake McCabe, who was traded at last year’s deadline, said. “I’m way more comfortable now than I was a year ago.”

Right now, Edmundson’s play will be given a chance to thrive alongside Timothy Liljegren. The young puck-moving defenceman believes his game can improve when he has a stable presence like Edmundson beside him.

“If (Liljegren) wants to jump up in the play, I’ll stay back, no problem, and take care of the defence. He’s got free will out there,” Edmundson said.

Perhaps if Liljegren’s game doesn’t ramp up ahead of the postseason, Edmundson could be paired with a similar type of player, Benoit, for a pairing heavy on the meat and potatoes. Depending on the temperature of the first round, that could be an option for Keefe to turn to.

Regardless of who he’s paired with, Edmundson will factor heavily on a Leafs penalty kill that struggled recently against the Boston Bruins.

But what Edmundson brings to the Leafs off the ice could end up mattering just as much as what he provides on it.

“My rookie (season), I had (Ryan Reaves) in the dressing room, I had guys like Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Steen. I looked up to all these guys,” Edmundson said. “And when you come into the league as a rookie you’re trying to find your role. And (those players) obviously had great careers. And so those are guys I wanted to follow.”

Like with Thomas and the Blues of 2019, there are young pieces on this Leafs team such as Matthew Knies and plenty of new faces undoubtedly looking to solidify their role in Toronto. Season after season, this Leafs team continues to try to build the right mix of players to surround their core with in the hopes of going deep into the playoffs.

Edmundson has been to where the Leafs want to go, having also gone to the Stanley Cup Final in 2021 with the Canadiens. Though what he does on the ice often goes unnoticed, his experience and his off-ice spirit likely won’t go unnoticed by his new Leafs teammates.

“It’s an important element to any team,” McCabe said of Edmundson’s style of play while grinning. “It’s nice to have a guy with his pedigree and the success he’s had for leadership aspects.”

(Photo of Joel Edmundson: Eric Bolte / USA Today)

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