Sergei Gonchar scored 14 points in 22 games for the Penguins through their Stanley Cup run. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
It’s tough to have a contract in the NHL these days that doesn’t seem like an overpayment.
Everyone knows the dangers that lie within the first few days of free agency, where Brian Campbell, a one-dimensional defenseman, once managed to squeeze a $7 million-plus per season contract out of Chicago for eight years.
Take one look at the poll page history on THN.com and you’ll see a never-ending string of deals deemed to be in favor of the player and in detriment to the team. Loui Eriksson’s six-year, $25.5-million deal: 64 percent say the Stars overpaid; Phil Kessel’s five-year, $27-million deal: 65 percent say the Maple Leafs overpaid; Antoine Vermette’s five-year, $18.75-million extension: 61 percent believe the Blue Jackets paid too much; and the list goes on.
But hindsight is 20/20 and not until these contracts reach their end can we really determine whether or not the player deserved his monstrous salary. The numbers seem mind-bogglingly large to us Average Joes who toil in the realm of reality, so it’s hard for us to comprehend sometimes that these deals are just par for the course and part of the game.
When the NHL was emerging from the dark depths of 2004-05 with a brand new financial structure, I can remember being floored when the dreadful Pittsburgh Penguins – who hadn’t finished better than last place in their division for three years – signed Sergei Gonchar to a five-year, $25-million deal.
I mean, the Penguins were horrible, they were obviously committed to a youth movement and they were struggling financially. Now, in a salary-capped world where it was assumed bad contracts would bite with more ferocity than ever, the Pens were putting down for a strong power play quarterback with defensive deficiencies.
Why on earth was a team that was minus-113 in goals for/goals against in 2003-04 committing so much for so long to a player who himself was minus-20 and only had a positive plus-minus in years where his team made the playoffs (with the exception of a plus-1 rating in 1998-99)? It was obvious the Pens were still at least a year or two away from getting a sniff of the post-season and it didn’t seem the time was right to make that kind of a bold move.
But, oh, what a difference five years makes.
With Gonchar coming up to unrestricted free agency after this season, the question that now must be asked is how are they going to keep him – and if they don’t figure that out, how are they going to replace him? Some will still argue Gonchar is a liability in his own end, while others will say he has found and improved his two-way responsibility in Steeltown. Whatever side of the debate you take, it’s impossible to deny the 35-year-old is the leader and go-to guy on this championship blueline.
But take one look at the Pittsburgh defense and you learn it is prepared to absorb the loss of Gonchar. Kris Letang is 22 years old and coming off a 33-point season he is destined to improve on. After that, as far as offensive defensemen go, 24-year-old Alex Goligoski will play a full season in the NHL this year and go along for the playoff ride as he begins his big-league career. The fact the Pens have these two ready to move up the depth chart just as Gonchar’s contract is ending is further testament to just how perfect that move was five long years ago.
Lots has changed since Gonchar signed on with the Penguins: salary cap loopholes have been found, long-term deals are the norm for superstar players and $5 million almost seems like chump change for a No. 1 defenseman.
We’ll never know for sure if the Pens would have won the Cup anyway without Gonchar, perhaps finding an offensive presence elsewhere. But there is no denying a talent like his certainly helped put them over the top and veteran experience shouldn’t be underestimated by anyone; it’s one of those variables that help push young teams along.
But as he enters the last year of what once seemed like an awful contract, we can look at the move as an example of why passing judgment on big-money deals is best left to history.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web content specialist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season.
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