The people who manage hockey teams tend to have much longer memories than the face-painters who cheer for them.
As such, some sporting Picassos in the Pittsburgh Penguins midst must have been ready to wave goodbye to Sergei Gonchar even before their team’s 5-2 Game 7 calamity against the Montreal Canadiens in Round 2 was complete.
Early in the second period, with the Pens already down 3-0 and trying to claw their way back into the game on a power play, Habs winger Travis Moen chipped the puck past Gonchar along the boards and was basically allowed to breeze by the defenseman completely unharmed and fire a shot into the far side of the net.
To be sure, it wasn’t Gonchar’s finest moment.
But when making an assessment on whether Gonchar, who’s eligible for unrestricted free agency July 1, has a future with the franchise, you can bet Penguins brass is considering a lot more than one bizarre, blown play.
“It’s the whole picture,” said Pens assistant GM Jason Botterill. “It’s term, obviously the dollar figure. Everyone has short-term memories about it, but you also have to look at what Sergei has brought to this organization from a power play standpoint (as seen) when he’s not in the lineup, when he is in the lineup and the calm presence he brings back there.”
Here are some hard numbers to consider when debating the merits of keeping Gonchar, whose expiring contract paid him an average salary of $5 million annually, in the Pittsburgh fold.
First, the bad: Gonchar is 36 years old, meaning any contract he signs stays entirely on the books regardless of whether he retires or not.
The other off-putting numbers are more hypothetical and pertain to those most basic contract elements Botterill referred to: How much does Gonchar want and, perhaps more importantly, how long does he want it for?
Joe Starkey is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and radio host in the area. He believes if another NHL team is willing to commit to Gonchar beyond a couple of years, there’s a good chance somebody else will be running the Penguins power play next fall.
“If some team is willing to give him length – I think three or more years – at a good price, maybe even a raise on what he’s making, he’s gone,” Starkey said. “And if he wants to take, probably I would say two years at around what he’s making now, he could stay.”
And as long as it’s on favorable terms, don’t think for a second the Pens wouldn’t prefer to have Gonchar stick around, and vice-versa.
Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero has already broken some ground with Gonchar’s agent, J.P. Barry, and the Russian’s stated preference is to remain a Pen.
It’s definitely been a fruitful marriage since Gonchar signed with the club just before play resumed after the 2004-05 lockout. He’s a consistent performer whose low shot from the blueline is as deadly as any in the league.
The main difference between Gonchar’s first three years with the Penguins and the past two is he never played less than 75 games through the three initial seasons, but has been limited to 25 and 62 the previous two campaigns due to injury.
“Sergei has missed games over the past couple years and that is taken into the equation, but by the same token, when he’s in the lineup he’s been very successful and Sergei has always worked very hard to get back into the lineup,” Botterill said.
Gonchar’s lack of forceful movement against Moen was the most blatant example of the Pens’ puzzling futility in the decisive game against Montreal, but he had lots of company in the category of Pittsburgh players who should have brought a lot more to the table in that contest. Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled after Moen’s goal, Sidney Crosby was in the penalty box when Brian Gionta opened the scoring 32 seconds into the game and Evgeni Malkin couldn’t cash in on a glorious chance from the slot with his team trailing by two and plenty of time left in the third period.
The post-season may have ended on a bitter note, but Gonchar was the team’s second-leading scorer in the playoffs with 12 points in 13 games, behind only the 19 posted by Crosby. Gonchar was also plus-4.
Additionally, neither Alex Goligoski nor Kris Letang appears ready to take the torch on the Pens blueline just yet.
“The team’s record is always better with him, the power play is always better with him, so he’s a hugely important guy and he won’t be easy to replace with Goligoski or Letang,” Starkey said.
There’s a belief out there the Pens’ main off-season priority will be finding a top-six winger to play with Crosby or Malkin, which would obviously eat into any money earmarked for Gonchar. To hear Botterill tell it, the organization isn’t as convinced a top-flight winger should be the most pressing need, especially given which end of the ice has proven to be the bigger problem area in recent years.
“Our goals-for have always been good and if you look at our numbers for goals-against, there’s definitely room for improvement there,” Botterill said. “We have good depth at wing and you look at the luxury of having a (Matt) Cooke and a (Tyler) Kennedy on the third line, to me, that proves we had some depth in that category at that position this year.
“I just don’t think it’s actually feasible to go out there and get that high-end winger that everyone (assumes we) desire.”
That could mean more money to retain Gonchar, as long as his expectations and that of the team aren’t separated by a space similar to the one Moen exploited to send the Pens packing in the first place.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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