Sergei Gonchar reunion? I’ll pass.

Published on January 8th, 2013

In Pittsburgh, nostalgia is an important thing. It sustains and breathes life into the culture of everything we do.

Beloved Pittsburgh athletes, particularly ones that lead the city to championships, are often at the forefront of such nostalgia.

In 2008 and 2009, Sergei Gonchar became such a household name by leading the Penguins to two Stanley Cup runs, one of which resulted in a victory that is still discussed and cherished by Penguins fans to this day.

Recently, rumors of a potential Sergei Gonchar return to Pittsburgh ran rampant on social media. Those discussions intensified when follow-up reports indicated that the aforementioned rumors contained an ambiguous amount of substance to them.

In this case, clairvoyance easily trumps nostalgia – an acquisition of Sergei Gonchar is a colossal mistake.

Sergei Gonchar’s skill set is the last thing the current Pittsburgh blue line needs.

I often wonder if the folks clamoring for a Gonchar return have familiarized themselves with the current and potentially bleak state of the Pittsburgh defensive unit. Maybe they simply have forgotten what the word defense means since 2009. If so, it’s hard to blame them.

To put it bluntly, the Pittsburgh Penguins have lacked a consistent and effective shutdown presence in the defense zone since they were holding the Stanley Cup over their heads in 2009.

Hal Gill is long gone to Nashville. Rob Scuderi, a player the Penguins grossly underestimated in the 2009 free agency period, has proven to be an invaluable commodity for winning a championship. If anyone needs further proof, he has won a cup elsewhere since.

Kris Letang has the ability to be dynamic on a nightly basis. A shortened season could benefit him. He has a large payday around the corner if it does and I’m certain that Letang knows it.

Brooks Orpik, Letang’s likely defensive partner, is due for a bounce-back season. Were the inconsistencies in Orpik’s play in 2011-12 the result of age or the remnants of multiple injury recovery processes? Regardless, Orpik remains more of an asset to Pittsburgh than a liability.

Matt Niskanen emerged with a breakout season in 2011-12, keeping an inconsistent and often inept unit cohesive. Can Niskanen build on his strong campaign last season? Pittsburgh’s front office certainly hopes so, as Niskanen was recently re-signed. Is it a given that Niskanen further breaks out in 2013? Hardly. The Minnesota native’s skill set is strong, but his resume prior to 2011-12 doesn’t lend itself to the complete removal of doubt.

Past those names, Pittsburgh’s defense looks utterly inefficient in its’ own zone. Exactly where does Sergei Gonchar aid the back end? In 2009-10, he was arguably Pittsburgh’s worst defenseman in the defensive zone. For those of the forgetful nature, that team also included Alex Goligoski.

If Gonchar is to play top four minutes, how is his lackluster defensive zone play an asset to Pittsburgh? How does it become the cure what current is ailing Pittsburgh’s blue line?

At a 5.5 million annual cap hit and being part of a reunion with familiar faces, Gonchar is likely too strong of a locker room presence to skate on the bottom pairing. Would he be re-united with Brooks Orpik to help out with his defensive zone issues? If so, is trusting Kris Letang to clean up Paul Martin’s messes something the Pens want to trust their 2013 season with? It certainly wasn’t a wise decision last season or the season prior to 2011-12.

An Orpik-Martin pairing wouldn’t be Pittsburgh’s worst option if they were to acquire Gonchar, but a Letang-Gonchar pairing is an inevitable nightmare if Bylsma were to go that route.

Letang’s freewheeling style often works because he has been paired with Brooks Orpik, the team’s sole defense-first blue-liner. Leaving Gonchar on a defensive zone island with top pairing minutes doesn’t seem like a potent defensive remedy to me, particular with the team inevitably playing the top-flight forward talent of the Atlantic division 28 times this season.

For those about to reference Gonchar’s most recent 2011-12 season with the Ottawa Senators, he was often paired with Norris trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson.

Sergei Gonchar is too expensive to be a bottom-pairing defenseman or simply a powerplay specialist

The Sergei Gonchar’s annual cap hit this season is 5.5 million. He is a pending UFA after the 2013 campaign. That’s more than what Paul Martin (the defenseman Ray Shero chose to sign over re-signing Gonchar to a similar amount in 2010) will make this season and just under what Matt Niskanen and Kris Letang’s salaries will combine to amount to this season.

For bottom-pairing help, the team can expel their currently available cap and prospect pipline with a much wiser trade.

For powerplay help, Steve Sullivan could have been re-signed for a much lower cap figure. Were the Penguins so certain (and financially short-sighted) that they could swoon Zach Parise that the team overlooked Sullivan’s productive play on the man-advantage last year? It’s possible, but I refuse to believe that an annual 5.5 million dollar mea culpa in that department is the wisest way to eat up that type of cap hit and make up for a lost asset.

If Pittsburgh’s potential intent of acquiring Gonchar is to place him on the bottom pairing and have his presence be primarily powerplay related, his defensive zone liabilities that I previously explored would continue to be exposed, possibly even moreso.

If Gonchar were to be paired with a player such as Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy, Brian Strait, or Simon Despres, playing on the road where having the last available line change to the home team becomes a constant matchup conundrum for Dan Bylsma. Icing calls with Gonchar on the ice? Nightmare inducing.

With the Penguins currently a respectable financial number under the salary cap and a defensive system ripe for a useful trade, there are many other ways to address the team’s powerplay, defensive inadequacies, and even the team’s gaping left-wing hole on the second line.

Pittsburgh has the ability to win now, if the blue line is addressed properly

Despite the team’s myriad of defensive woes, Pittsburgh still remains a legitimate cup contender – with some proper tweaking.

The acquisitions of Brandon Sutter, Tanner Glass, and Tomas Vokoun all are sure-fire boons for the team’s improvement. Nonetheless, there has been a glaring lack of positive movement on the team’s blue line. At forward and in net, Pittsburgh is a world class team, capable of winning a Stanley Cup this season. Defensively, they resemble a team that is already looking forward to draft night.

Speaking of draft night, let’s take a look back at last summer’s 2012 draft as I make my final point on Sergei Gonchar :

On the night of the 2012 NHL draft, Zbynek Michalek was moved back to Phoenix in a trade that eventually has become nothing more than a salary dump. Michalek wasn’t always the best fit for Pittsburgh’s defensive system, but his shot-blocking skill set will be sorely missed.

That trade exorcized four million dollars in annual cap space for the 2013 season. Was Pittsburgh’s intent for moving their best shot-blocker to Phoenix a prerequisite for a trade for a defenseman that was stalled by a lockout? Were they ready to throw substantial money at Ryan Suter, who eventually expressed an interest to follow Zach Parise to Minnesota?

If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then falling back on Sergei Gonchar as an alternative to Suter or Michalek is quite possibly the most asinine contingency plan I’ve heard of in quite some time. If the Penguins were unable to move Paul Martin and his bloated salary, keeping Michalek instead of making the move for Gonchar would have been wiser both on the ice for defensive purposes, and off the ice for financial reasons.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a team that is to be reckoned with. They’re a strong role-player or two away from being a formidable opponent and potentially becoming one that can hang with teams like the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins in the Eastern conference. However, the front office has consistently mismanaged and overestimated the evolution of the team’s defensive unit since 2009. Acquiring Sergei Gonchar is another step in a futile direction.

Nostalgia is nice, but not when there is so much to gain by further examining the present.

You can follow Joe Depto on Twitter at @JoeDepto

Read yesterdays post, The case for the Penguins to re-acquire Serge Gonchar.