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David Clarkson (71) is checked along the boards by Zachary Yuen during training camp. (FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
David Clarkson (71) is checked along the boards by Zachary Yuen during training camp. (FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

James Mirtle

Maple Leafs looking to improve their blueline Add to ...

For a professional athlete attempting to recover from an injury, it’s a unique and somewhat extreme option.

First, they might try massage. Or physiotherapy. Perhaps even the hot tub … or the cold tub.

But when it’s a nagging ailment like the hip flexor that plagued Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson all of last season, electroacupuncture – which involves an electrical current passing between the needles inserted into the skin – can become an alternative instead of resorting to surgery.

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He believes it helped – even if it’s not always a fun experience.

“It can be kind of painful,” Gunnarsson said, “but as long as you know it’s working, you’ll take that for a couple minutes.”

The type of understated stay-at-home defenceman that every NHL team needs to log big minutes, Gunnarsson laboured through a trying 2013 season, missing 11 games and playing hurt in most of the 37 others as part of an injury that crippled the effectiveness of the Leafs’ back end.

And that was far from the only issue with Toronto’s blueline.

While the Leafs managed to finish fifth in the Eastern Conference and qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2004, they did so with inexperienced players such as Mike Kostka and Korbinian Holzer playing key minutes on the first pairing alongside Dion Phaneuf.

Combined with Gunnarsson’s injury and the struggles of veteran John-Michael Liles, the defence allowed the most shots against in the NHL at even strength (33 for every 60 minutes of play), one of the main contributors to their woeful possession game.

But if there’s one reason to believe Toronto can improve in that key area, it’s the changes that are coming on the blueline.

In addition to a healthier Gunnarsson, the Leafs are expected to have a full season from 23-year-old Jake Gardiner, who appeared in only 12 regular-season games in 2013, before taking a starring role in the first round of the postseason against the Boston Bruins.

“He played very well in the playoffs,” Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said. “We expect him to continue to grow, but he’s a young player and we also don’t want any steps backward.”

The battle to make the Leafs top six also appears to be much more fierce at this year’s training camp, with general manager Dave Nonis having added veterans Paul Ranger and T.J. Brennan to compete with players such as Holzer, Liles and top prospect Morgan Rielly for minutes.

Provided the Leafs can re-sign restricted free agent Cody Franson, it appears they will be deeper at the position than a year ago, when Gunnarsson was on the ice 27 per cent of the time and Kostka (27 per cent), Liles (21 per cent) and Holzer (14 per cent) were often given more minutes than their play dictated.

“It’s going to be a battle,” Gunnarsson said after the first day of on-ice activity at training camp. “It’s going to be a good competition. It’s tough, but at the end of the day, I think it’s going to be good for the team.”

Overall, the Leafs excelled in several key areas last season, with a top penalty kill (second in NHL), high team save percentage (tied for seventh) and plenty of goals (sixth) and there may not be a lot of room for improvement there.

In fact, even maintaining those rankings could prove difficult, especially given how competitive the new Atlantic Division will be with the Detroit Red Wings now in the mix.

That means one key to returning to the playoffs will be in getting more out of the areas where they struggled, such as moving the puck out of their own end (which Gardiner and Liles can help with) and limiting other teams’ top lines (which Gunnarsson will be tasked with).

For his part, Carlyle sounds like he expects more from most of his returning defencemen – assuming they end up winning the training camp battle for minutes that will play out in their eight preseason games.

“It’s always good and healthy to have people competing for jobs,” the coach said. “It usually brings the best out of people.”

Staying healthy, meanwhile, remains the main priority for Gunnarsson, an ongoing process even almost a full year after the initial injury.

“I have stay on top of it right now,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of skating when we start playing games, and I have to make sure it doesn’t go back to what it was.”

@mirtle

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