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The Departed - Sergei Gonchar - 08-04-10

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

"The Departed" series on Empty Netters is a set of "eulogies" for former Penguins who have passed away... to other teams. Essentially, we look back on their time as a Penguin, examine their contributions to the franchise and as real eulogies occasionally do, exaggerate a bit. Today's eulogy is dedicated to Sergei Gonchar.


Prior to the lockout, Penguins fans had grown accustomed to seeing their financially struggling team sift through the bargain bin of free agency. The Penguins' "big" acquisitions through free agency were guys like Mike Eastwood and Kelly Buchberger who were just hoping for one last NHL payday. Meanwhile, as the league operated without a salary cap, teams like the Avalanche would spend lavishly on future hall-of-famers like Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne.

Basically, the first day of free agency was just another date on a pretty rotten calendar for the Penguins.

The 2004-05 lockout came and ushered in "cost certainty." A salary cap was in place. And few teams benefited from the league's new economic environment more than the Penguins. They were on a level playing field with the likes of the Rangers and Red Wings in terms of spending. They could afford to go after legit free agents and not worry about simply being outbid by teams with deeper pockets.

For the first time in at least a decade, Craig Patrick could go after all-star caliber players on the free market. A former Hart Trophy winner like Peter Forsberg was available. So was the starting goaltender of the Stanley Cup champion Lightning, Nikolai Khabibulin. One player who seemed to be coveted the most was Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer, the defending Norris Trophy winner and arguably, the sport's ultimate winner.

Patrick's first signing was a fairly familiar face in Sergei Gonchar.

Gonchar was a major part of the rival Capitals from the mid 1990s until the early 2000s. He consistently gave them a 50-point presence on the blue line and was a significant part of that franchise's greatest success when it made a run to the Stanley Cup final in 1998. And Penguins fans were familiar with him as well. He was a member of Capitals teams which were eliminated four times by the Penguins in the 1995, 1996, 2000 and 2001 postseasons. The Capitals' loss to the Penguins in 2001 came directly off the stick of Gonchar who committed a turnover which led to a breakaway goal for Martin Straka in Game 6 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal at Mellon Arena:

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But Gonchar's postseason struggles didn't matter to the Penguins. They wanted a defenseman they could lean on in all sorts of situations. They wanted someone who could play 25 minutes a night and provide strong play in all three zones. And most notably, they wanted someone who could just run the power play. They wanted someone who would just do the right thing with the puck every time he handled it in the offensive zone with a man advantage. They really hadn't a total defenseman like that since Larry Murphy in the early 1990s. Craig Patrick was given the keys to the vault and shrewdly signed Gonchar to a five-year deal worth a total of $25 million.

Expectations were high for Gonchar and the Penguins who also splurged on the likes of Zigmund Palffy, John LeClair and others. Combined with new rules promoting offense and the drafting of Sidney Crosby, the Penguins hoped to return to their run and gun ways which led to two Stanley Cup titles in the early 1990s. But things could not have started out any worse.

The Penguins only won one game the first month of 2005-06. They lost their first nine games of the season. And Gonchar drew a lot of heat for underperforming as he only produced two points in those nine contests. Head coach Ed Olczyk would end up getting fired before Christmas having only won six games to that point of the season. Mario Lemieux would retire for good in January. Palffy would retire as well. And LeClair played like a 36-year-old shell of his former self. Basically, the season was a complete and total flop.

The only constant was Crosby's production as he hit the 100-point mark. Gonchar would end up as the team's second-leading scorer behind Crosby with 58 points, the third-highest total of his career until that point, but he simply didn't live up to the expectations of being the team's most expensive player. He was simply too inconsistent.

The Ray Shero regime started in 2006-07. He retained head coach Michel Therrien who stressed accountability from his defensemen. The freelancing days of Dick Tarnstrom and Rick Jackman were gone. Gonchar still would have every opportunity to produce offensively, but not at the expense of his duties behind his own blue line. And as a veteran, Gonchar was expected to lead by example with the franchise turning to the fairly untested likes of Brooks Orpik, Ryan Whitney and Rob Scuderi.

"Sarge" would also take on arguably his most important responsibility with the Penguins. He became a mentor that season when Evgeni Malkin (right) finally came over from Russia. Knowing little English and being naturally shy, Malkin, the second overall pick in the 2004 draft, was facing an entirely new world in North America. Gonchar would take the rookie into his home, make him part of his family and teach him about life in the NHL.

The results on both fronts would be astounding. The Penguins would button up defensively dropping their goals against average from 3.78 to 2.93 and make a 47-point improvement from 2005-06, the fourth-largest single-season jump in NHL history, en route to the franchise's first postseason appearance in six years. And Malkin would lead all rookies with 33 goals and 85 points while winning the Calder Trophy. Gonchar didn't do too bad himself by tying a career-high with 67 points.

Gonchar maintained his stellar play in 2007-08. In 78 games, he recorded 65 points and was named a finalist for the Norris Trophy. Malkin would elevate his game by reaching the century mark in points for the first time with 106. And the Penguins would win the Atlantic Division, their first division title in a decade. Gonchar, never considered a strong playoff performer, collected a career-high 14 points in 20 postseason games as the team reached the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 16 years. In that final, Gonchar would play a pivotal role in one of the greatest wins in franchise history. During the second period of Game 5 in Detroit, Gonchar raced back to his own zone to defend a two-on-one. Marc-Andre Fleury would make the save, but Gonchar crashed into the boards awkwardly:

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He would retreat to the locker room to receive treatment and ended up missing more than three periods as the game went to multiple overtimes. The Penguins would eventually get a four-minute power play midway through the third overtime. Sensing his team had its best chance to claim the contest, Gonchar returned to the ice, quarterbacked the power play and recorded a secondary assist on Petr Sykora's game-winning goal:

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The Penguins would return to Pittsburgh and lose the Cup in Game 6. Despite that disappointment, they now had different expectations. They were a Cup contender. They were no longer a team in a rebuilding mode. It was Cup of bust for the Penguins.

The 2008-09 campaign began with the greatest expectations but it started in the worst of ways. In the first period of the first preseason game that season, Gonchar was run into the boards on a fairly innocent check by Lightning goon David Koci. Gonchar emerged from the boards in obvious distress and went to the bench immediately. He had suffered a separated shoulder on the play. Surgery would sideline him for parts of five months.

The Penguins stumbled most of those five months, especially on the power play. By the time Gonchar returned in a 6-2 blowout loss in Toronto Feb. 14, the team was in dire straits. With a 27-25-5 record, the Penguins were in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. Despite the fact he only had his best defenseman available for all of one game, Therrien was fired the next day and replaced by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Dan Bylsma. The promotion of Bylsma, the return of Gonchar and a few trades kick-started the team which climbed up the Eastern Conference and finished the season in fourth-place. Gonchar didn't miss a beat as he was able to produce 19 points in only 25 games.

In the postseason, Gonchar collected five points in the team's first-round defeat of the rival Flyers. His fifth point was the game-winning goal in the dramatic 5-3 comeback road win in Game 6. That would earn the Penguins a meeting with another rival, Gonchar's former team, the Capitals.

The first three games of this series were a dazzling display of offense. They were all tight, one-goal games but the skating and offensive creativity was simply amazing to watch. The Capitals won Games 1 and 2 in Washington. The Penguins got back in the series thanks to a Kris Letang overtime goal. Game 4 pretty much stayed on script until late in the first period. With the Capitals protecting a 1-0 lead early in the contest, Gonchar blew a slapper from the point by rookie goaltender Semyon Varlamov. The goal seemed to shake Varlamov who looked rattled and allowed two more goals in the period. With just over five minutes left in the first, Gonchar went down at the hands of Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin who hit the Penguins defenseman with a reckless knee-on-knee collision:

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The Penguins would win the game but lose Gonchar. Cries for the league to punish Ovechkin would go unanswered. Gonchar's absence would force the Penguins to recall Alex Goligoski from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and go with seven defensemen. That strategy would help them claim another run-and-gun overtime win in Game 5 but they would fail to close the series at home in Game 6. That meant Game 7 in Washington.

Gonchar once again lifted his team with his presence when it was needed most. He would only see 15:06 of ice time, far less than his typical workload, and he only recorded one assist. But it was enough to push the Penguins to a blow-out 6-2 win to claim the series.

The Penguins were hardly tested in the Eastern Conference final as they swept the Hurricanes. After winning Game 4, Gonchar, an alternate captain along with Malkin, joined the captain, Crosby, and snubbed their noses at one of the sport's biggest traditions. They touched the Prince of Wales Trophy:

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That victory earned them another meeting with another rival - the Red Wings. Games 1 and 2 went to the Red Wings. The Penguins returned home needing a win. Gonchar would provide them with that as he scored the game-winning goal - a slapper from the point on a power play which blew by Chris Osgood's glove - and also recorded an assist.

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The Penguins ended up winning four of the final five games of the series and claimed the franchise's third Stanley Cup title. While teammates like Malkin and Staal needed all of three seasons to get their hands on the Cup, Gonchar finally got to call himself a champion after 13 years.

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Gonchar entered the final year of his contract in 2009-10. He would miss a handful of game with various minor ailments but still found a way to record 50 points in only 62 games. But with the losses of Scuderi and Hal Gill to free agency, Gonchar was asked to pick up more minutes, especially on the penalty kill. The toll was apparent as the 36-year-old Gonchar appeared to wear down by the time the postseason rolled around.

Gonchar's production didn't suffer in this past spring, in fact, he enjoyed the most productive postseason of his NHL career by collecting 12 points in 13 games, nearly a point per game. But his defense declined, especially in the second round. If there was a play to which could sum up Gonchar's defense in that round, it's this simply inexcusable shorthanded goal by Montreal's Travis Moen in Game 7:

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The Penguins' most dependable player simply looked spent and let them down at the worst time possible. The Canadiens would claim the game 5-2 and end the Penguins' season and Gonchar's career in Pittsburgh.

Last month, Gonchar joined the Senators as an unrestricted free agent.

In 322 games with the Penguins, Gonchar scored 259 points, 28th-most in franchise history. Only Paul Coffey (440), Ron Stackhouse (343), Randy Carlyle (323) and Larry Murphy (301) scored more among defenseman. In 60 playoff games, Gonchar recorded 44 points, ninth-most in franchise history.

For over half a decade, Sergei Gonchar wore many hats for the Penguins. Respected leader. Power-play quarterback. Minute-eater. Translator. Penalty killer. Mentor.

He excelled in all of those capacities more often than not. Along the way, he played a major role in resurrecting this franchise and making it a Stanley Cup champion once again.

(Photos: First-Harry How/Getty Images; Second-Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press; Third, fifth and sixth-Peter Diana/Post-Gazette; Fourth-John Heller/Post-Gazette)

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