Sergei Gonchar (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
The Penguins are bringing veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar to camp, but the tryout contract may point to some problems in Pittsburgh. With the loss of Paul Martin in free agency, the Penguins blueline is looking awfully thin and could be the difference between meeting Stanley Cup contention expectations and a season of disappointment.
After a season in which he scored just one goal and 14 points in 48 games, Sergei Gonchar has landed himself a pro tryout without the Pittsburgh Penguins.
While giving a shot to the 41-year-old Gonchar without anything guaranteed isn’t an altogether terrible idea — worst-case scenario is he lands a cheap, one-year deal after a solid camp and plays depth minutes — it signals a bigger concern for the Penguins: their lack of defensive prospects and a blueline that has grown thin enough the club has to consider a 40-plus option on the backend.
Have the Penguins really grown desperate enough for help on the blueline that their best option is a veteran who is coming off of the worst statistical season of his career? Is there really no one else that GM Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Johnston can rely on?
While it is true the Penguins defense corps is a bit thin after the trio of Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Ian Cole, it’s difficult to believe none of Ben Lovejoy, Rob Scuderi and youngster Derrick Pouliot can fill the spot Gonchar will be gunning for.
That’s not to say Gonchar is entirely washed up. If given bottom-pairing or seventh defenseman minutes and a specialty role as a power play quarterback, there’s little doubt that Gonchar could still produce something resembling an effective season, especially for a veteran who very well could have hung his skates up years ago. He was fantastic for the Penguins from 2005 to 2010, but for him to potentially take the minutes away from the bottom-pairing defensemen is seemingly a knock on the entire defense situation in Pittsburgh.
Maybe, if nothing else, the tryout speaks to Paul Martin’s 2014-15 campaign. The veteran defenseman became one of the most sought after free agent defensemen following a stellar showing this past season. He left Pittsburgh this off-season for San Jose and maybe more than a Sharks gain, it was a Penguins loss. Without Martin, there’s a glaring hole on the Pittsburgh blueline.
As for those remaining in Pittsburgh, Scuderi’s play over the past two seasons has been a shell of what the Penguins were hoping for when they signed him to a four-year, $13.5 million. This past season, he wasn’t trusted in defensive situations — he started less than 28 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone — and barely posted a shot attempts for percentage above 50 percent at 5-on-5. That’s not to mention that the 36-year-old Scuderi scored only one goal and 10 points in 2014-15, which was below even his meager 0.14 career points per game average. Scuderi isn’t giving the Penguins bang for their buck on either side of the ice.
As for Lovejoy, he was reacquired from the Anaheim Ducks in a trade that sent Simon Despres to California. Despres is arguably the more talented blueliner and the acquisition of Lovejoy didn’t bolster the Penguins’ defense. While Lovejoy can be a serviceable bottom-three blueliner, he’s not the answer to Pittsburgh’s issues.
That leaves Pouliot, who was selected eighth overall by Pittsburgh at the 2012 draft. The 21-year-old defenseman got his first taste of NHL action this past season, but an injury held him out of the lineup in the post-season. Though healthy in time for Game 5 of the first-round series against the Rangers, he was forced to watch as the Penguins were booted from the post-season.
Injuries, like the one to Pouliot, have consistently been an area of concern for the Penguins. This past season, the only blueliner to play the full season for the Penguins was Scuderi. Letang missed time with groin and head injuries. Maatta was sidelined first by a tumor, then by a shoulder injury. Former Penguins Martin and Christian Ehrhoff missed time with injuries ranging from a concussion to undisclosed lower and upper body ailments. But if Gonchar is being brought in as injury insurance, it’s odd they’re bringing him in to compete for a job so soon.
Though it’s far too early to say what, for sure, the Penguins blueline will be in 2015-16, one can’t help but wonder if things in Pittsburgh are going to turn out much like how they did for Dallas in 2014-15. Offensively, the Stars were exceptional with scorers such as Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza. Only the high-flying Tampa Bay Lightning scored more than the Stars. Defensively, however, Dallas was a nightmare. The club’s deficiencies on the backend ruined what could have been a promising season and the Stars finished as one of only five teams to surrender 260 or more goals.
This upcoming season, the Penguins will hit the ice with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist and David Perron. Those are some formidable offensive weapons. If the Gonchar tryout isn’t more than an organization giving one last shot to a veteran who has served them well before, it speaks volumes about management’s trust in the defense corps they’ve assembled.
With an all-star group of forwards, the season stands to have incredible boom or bust potential for the Penguins, and the bust tag will rest solely on the shoulders of the club’s rearguards. If Gonchar cracks the lineup, it will be a sign Rutherford and Johnston aren’t happy with who’ve they got to thwart the opposition attack. And if the season threatens to go off the rails early, it likely won’t be long before some scoring punch is moved for defenisve help, no matter if Gonchar makes the club or not.