Everyone is curious to see how 37-year-old Sergei Gonchar fits into the Ottawa Senators youth movement this season.
The defenceman isn’t exactly the poster boy for a re-build, as he’s coming off one of the worst seasons of his 16-year NHL career. The Senators signed Gonchar to a three-year contract in the summer of 2010 because they firmly believed they were a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference. But during a disastrous 2010-11 season that saw the club finish in last place in the Northeast Division with just 74 points, the Senators traded several prominent veterans. Gonchar, however, was not among them – so he returns for a second season in Ottawa with drastically different expectations for this team.
Not a single expert is predicting the Senators will make the post-season in 2011-12, but Gonchar believes the playoffs are within reach for this team.
“I’m really excited about this season. It’s a great opportunity for us to turn the page – not only me, but everyone is looking forward to it,” Gonchar told Sportsnet. “At the end of last season, you saw that the new guys we had could play at this level. Knowing that, it makes me excited moving forward. You know, this team is good enough to make the playoffs. We have enough talent here. With a new system and a new structure, we have a good chance. And when you make the playoffs, you never know.”
The key for Gonchar just might be that new system and structure under head coach Paul MacLean. Gonchar never appeared to be comfortable under Cory Clouston’s system last season – a campaign that was cut short by a late-season concussion. But Gonchar speaks highly of the newly-hired MacLean, who collected more than 300 goals as an NHL player himself.
“With Paul, he’s one of those people who has played in this league for a long time, so he has the experience as a player,” explained Gonchar. “And then he was a coach for a long time in this league too. With that experience, it’s going to help me and our whole team. I’m sure he has so much knowledge that he’s going to share, that it’s going to help all of us – older guys and younger guys. Having him behind us is really going to help us.”
It also helps that MacLean has seen Gonchar play at his best. The new Senators coach was behind the Detroit bench as an assistant when the Red Wings played the Penguins in two consecutive Stanley Cup finals. Gonchar helped carry Pittsburgh to a seven-game victory over Detroit in 2009, despite playing with a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his knee for the entire series.
“Sergei is a good player – I know he’s a good player,” said MacLean. “I watched him in the Stanley Cup finals two years in a row and that wasn’t too long ago. I don’t think he’s going backward. I think for the most part, he’s maintaining and I think he’s going to be a little bit better now.”
MacLean had a front row seat to watch Gonchar quarterback the Penguins power play in those two Stanley Cup final series. When the Senators signed Gonchar last summer, it was done to help generate offence from the backend. However, Gonchar struggled to breathe life into the Senators’ power play last season, as he collected just 27 points in 67 games – his worst offensive output in more than a decade. Some people attribute Gonchar’s struggles in Ottawa to an early-season decision by Clouston to put him on the left point on the power play – which is not where the defenceman enjoyed his success in Pittsburgh. There appears to be no question that Gonchar will start this season playing on the right point on the power play under MacLean.
“He was able to manage the puck for them and he was good at transporting the puck up the ice,” MacLean said, when describing Gonchar at the helm of the Penguins attack. “And he did a really good job on the right side of getting the puck to Crosby and Malkin so they were able to attack the net through seams or behind the goal line. His vision walking off the right side – being a left-handed shot – he can come into the middle of the rink and he can see the whole ice and make plays from there.”
MacLean said he will sit down with Gonchar, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson at some point this week to discuss their ideas for the power play, which ranked 25th in the NHL on the road last season. Gonchar believes that just putting him on the right point to start the season won’t solve everything, as there are a number of factors that go into a successful power play.
“The skill level is there, but the biggest thing we missed last season was a presence in front of the net. If we’re going to focus on the power play this year, we need to have a guy in front of the net on a consistent basis,” Gonchar said. “And we’re going to shoot the puck a lot more and create traffic. We’re going to create those opportunities and chances and make sure we’re shooting the puck more and not just moving it around.”
Gonchar said he embraces the role of being an off-ice leader for this team that is clearly in transition. He is often credited with taking Evgeni Malkin under his wing when the talented forward broke into the league with the Penguins back in 2006-07. In Gonchar’s first season in Pittsburgh, the club finished dead last in the Eastern Conference with 58 points. Just three years later, they were hoisting the Stanley Cup – so the defenceman knows what it’s like to be a part of a complete re-building effort. And he also knows the expectations that fall on the veterans in the room, when there are a number of young faces looking up at them.
“I think it’s a positive. When you’re older and you’re playing with younger guys, it just comes naturally,” added Gonchar. “When I was young, I remember how tough it was to break into this league – now I see what those guys are going through, I’m going to try and help them. As a veteran, you have to do those things. It’s a part of your job as an older player to help the younger guys to grow.”
In Pittsburgh, the young core of the team consisted of a number of high-end forwards such as Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal. But here in Ottawa, Gonchar will have a chance to mold some young blueliners, as the strength of the Senators youth movement is clearly on the backend. Young defencemen like Erik Karlsson, David Rundblad and Jared Cowen are all looking forward to spending time with Gonchar this season.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for me to watch him play and to watch him practice,” said Rundblad, whom the Senators believe could make the big club this season. “He is really good on the power play and with the offence. Of course I try to watch him play and try and learn from that. He’s been around for many years and he knows exactly what to do – so it’s great to have him here.”