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Sergei Gonchar continues to work magic with Penguins’ new defensemen

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PITTSBURGH — During his playing days Sergei Gonchar spent five years as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins and helped play a critical role in the team reaching back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009. His impact was noticeable every time he was in the lineup. He was a 25-minute per night defenseman, the quarterback of the power play, and even scored some huge goals, including a game-winner late in Game 3 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final to help prevent the team from falling into a 3-0 series hole.

Over the past three years he has played a different sort of role — one that is not as easily noticeable — in helping the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Following the end of his playing career in 2014-15, Gonchar joined the Penguins organization as a “defenseman development coach” and eventually worked his way to full-time assistant on the team’s staff. During that time he has played an influential role in helping the Penguins piece together a Stanley Cup caliber defense with a collection of players that have, at times, been overlooked and even tossed aside by their previous teams.

• During the 2015-16 season they acquired Trevor Daley from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Rob Scuderi. At the time, Daley was playing a career-low 14 minutes per game in Chicago and never seemed to fit with head coach Joel Quenneville or the Blackhawks’ style of play after being acquired by the team in exchange for Patrick Sharp.

• A couple of months later the Penguins traded a third-round draft pick to the Edmonton Oilers for Justin Schultz, a defensman that had pretty much become ostracized in Western Canada because he didn’t live up to unreasonable hype and expectations on a bad team. At the time of his trade he was referred to by one pundit as “the worst player in hockey.” Along with Daley, Schultz helped reshape the Penguins’ blue line and then played an even bigger role the following season in the absence of Kris Letang. He had a career year, finished 10th in Norris Trophy voting, and was rewarded with a three-year extension over the summer.

• Earlier this season with the team in a funk and struggling defensively, Rutherford swung another minor deal in sending a fourth-round draft pick to the Dallas Stars for Jamie Oleksiak. Like Daley and Schultz before him, Oleksiak seemed to have fallen out of favor with his previous team, was getting limited ice-time, and didn’t exactly receive strong reviews from those that watched him regularly. Since arriving in Pittsburgh, Oleksiak has played some of the best hockey of his career and has proven to be another strong in-season pickup by the Penguins’ general manager.

He scored his fourth goal as a member of the Penguins on Sunday night in just his 35th game with the team, and it proved to be a big win, going in the books as the game-winner. It also happened to come against the team that traded him.

“It’s always nice to contribute,” said a smiling Oleksiak when asked if the goal had any special meaning. “Just happy for the win.”

Since arriving in Pittsburgh, Oleksiak has been the latest reclamation project for Gonchar and assistant coach Jacques Martin along the team’s blue line. The early returns have been promising.

Listed at 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, Oleksiak has the sort of size that NHL scouts and executives can lose their minds over, especially for a defenseman. He also possesses a booming slap shot and is a surprisingly swift skater for being such a massive human being. All of the tools are in place to be a solid pro, and when all of that is taken into account it is no surprise he was a 14th overall pick in the draft.

Before he was a member of the Penguins’ coaching staff, Gonchar had a chance to get an up close look at Oleksiak from a different perspective — as a player. During Gonchar’s brief stint with the Stars he spent some time playing as one Oleksiak’s first defense partners in the NHL and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Gonchar, armed with first-hand knowledge of what sort of skill set Oleksiak had, was able to get into the ear of the front office and urge them to take a shot on the player.

A future fourth-round draft pick later, here we are.

Even though Oleksiak downplayed it after Sunday’s game (“I don’t really need to be a guy that scores a lot of goals”), the Penguins seem to have turned him loose a little bit offensively and given him a bit more freedom than he may have had in Dallas. He also seems to be a more confident player and, without any prompting, mentioned the work of Gonchar and Martin on Sunday night in how he has been able to fit in with the Penguins and why it maybe didn’t work in Dallas.

“I wouldn’t say it didn’t work,” said Oleksiak of his time with the Stars. “It’s just been a great fit for me here with the people really helping me out. It’s a great cast here with this defense core and guys like Jacques and Gonch willing to work with us. It’s been a really smooth transition.”

So what is it about Gonchar that has worked for him?

“I think it helps sometimes to have a guy that’s not on the bench,” said Oleksiak. “I think sometimes assistant coaches don’t want to push the wrong buttons or get too hard on guys during games, so it’s kind of nice to have a guy that’s not on the bench, but as an eye on the sky that’s kind of been there. He’s not afraid to tell you you have to be better here, or you have to be better there, so you’re not kind of overthinking things too much.”

Over the past two years other defensemen in the Penguins’ organization have talked extensively about Gonchar’s focus on “little things” like stick position, body position, and foot position along the blue line.

Last year, Schultz told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen about a lot of the video work they did together and the things Gonchar preached to him.

An excerpt (full interview here):

“We were watching guys like Nicklas Lidstrom and Erik Karlsson, some of the things they’ve done offensively. It was when I first got here last year. We watched things they did with the puck, how they played the game. We started focusing on things like that and it helped me out a lot. I would still see video of myself, but that was the first thing, he just wanted to show me with Lidstrom, his position all the time in the defensive zone and he never got beat. He wanted to show me that you don’t have to run over guys or anything, just be in good position, good stick position. Like I said, it’s the little details. We started focusing on that and it helped me. It was just trying to take care of the [defensive] zone, be comfortable in the [defensive] zone, be relied on there. If you take care of that part you’re going to get the puck back and you’ll be on offense.”

It’s not that the Penguins have taken these players and turned them into Erik Karlsson or Nicklas Lidstrom, or even players that might win a Norris Trophy. Not every defenseman has to be play at that level, and not every defenseman can. And the Penguins still are not always a lockdown defensive team. They can be at times, but their style of play and roster construction doesn’t always lend itself to that style of play. They can get into track meets at times and have some break downs.

But what is important is that they have taken players that have some skill, maybe did not fit with their previous teams for one reason or another, acquired them for next-to-nothing, and worked to get a little more out of them.

When you are a team that spends to the upper limits of the NHL’s salary cap and have a significant portion of that money going to a small core of players, there is a ton of pressure on the GM and front office to find ways to still build a competitive roster around the edges. No matter how good your top tier players are, you can not just rely on them to cover up everything else. Otherwise you become, well, Edmonton. You still need to find talent to fill out the rest of the roster, ideally with players that don’t cost a lot to acquire or cost a lot against the salary cap.

In other words: You have to find talent where other teams might be missing it or not utilizing it as best they can.

When it comes to constructing their defense in recent years, the Penguins have been able to find ways to do that, and Gonchar’s work behind the scenes has been a huge part of that.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Chara, Oleksiak square off in towering heavyweight tilt (video)

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Fighting in today’s NHL is becoming less and less.

So, when you see a combined 13-feet of NHL behemoths going toe-to-toe, it’s a noteworthy and remarkable occurrence — and a treat.

The tale of the tape included 6-foot-9, 255-pounder in Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara and a 6-foot-7, 255-pounder in Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Jamie Oleksiak. Both possess the reach of roughly a country mile.

That’s a whole lotta beef.

Many would say whoever is fighting Chara is a sucker for punishment, but Oleksiak is no slouch. And the 25-year-old held is own against Chara, who is 40.

Chara may have been a bit tired, too.

Also, that look on Chara’s face as he’s planning where to plant his fist on your face is, well, terrifying.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Penguins add depth with Leighton, Oleksiak acquisitions

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The Pittsburgh Penguins just got a little bigger on their backend.

The Penguins announced they struck a deal with the Dallas Stars on Tuesday afternoon, acquiring 6-foo-7 defenseman Jamie Oleksiak for a conditional fourth-round pick in 2019.

The trade comes on the heels of the Penguins making an odd move earlier in the day after acquiring goaltender Michael Leighton and a fourth-round draft pick in 2019 from the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for forward Josh Archibald, goaltender Sean McGuire and a sixth-round draft pick in 2019.

Oleksiak, who has just three points in 21 games this season, hasn’t played since Dec. 9. It will be interesting to see where he fits in, if he does at all immediately.

One report suggests the Penguins had been interested in Oleksiak’s services for a while, and that the deal came together pretty quickly.

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford suggested that a ‘major trade’ could happen if the Penguins continue to struggle.

Pittsburgh dropped a 4-2 decision to the Colorado Avalanche on Monday and sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference.

“We’re coming into a critical period where we’ll make a decision whether we need to shake things up or not,” Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last Wednesday. “We’re good enough to be better than we’re doing. Hopefully, that’s the way it goes here in the next little while. If it doesn’t, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that a major trade would come out of this.”

The Penguins have two fourth-round picks in 2019 at the moment and the Stars will get whichever one is higher, according to Shapiro.

Meanwhile, Leighton was sent down to Wilkes-Barrie/Scranton of the American Hockey League. Matt Murray is back to full health with the Penguins and Tristan Jarry has been phenomenal as a backup (and starter) when called upon.

It’s been an interesting season for Leighton, who will join his third NHL team after previously being with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Leighton is on a two-way deal with $650,000 at the NHL level and is an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season.

Leighton has played in just seven NHL games over the past seven seasons and unless the Penguins want to give Jarry more playing time in the AHL, it seems unfathomable that he’d become the backup going forward.

Archibald, meanwhile, will stay up with the Coyotes after the club announced that Dylan Strome was being sent back to the AHL following the trade. McGuire has been assigned to the Coyotes ECHL affiliate.

Also, in case you’re wondering about the NHL’s roster freeze and what it all means, CapFriendly sent out a helpful tweet to explain.

Stars make contract offer to Eaves, Oleksiak and McKenzie

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On the same day the club announced it would be parting ways with veteran center Shawn Horcroff, Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said he has extended contract offers to Patrick Eaves, Jamie Oleksiak and Curtis McKenzie.

Eaves, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, scored 14 goals and 27 points in 47 games during the 2014-15 season. His one-year, $650,000 contract is set to expire.

The 31-year-old had his season shortened by multiple injuries.

“We need to hear from their camp. We’d like to have him back,” Nill said of negotiations with Eaves. “We made him a contract offer and if he doesn’t accept that he’ll be looking at free agency. We’d like to bring him back, so we’ll see where that goes.”

Oleksiak will become a restricted free agent as his three-year, $4.2 million entry-level deal expires on July 1. The 22-year-old split the 2014-15 season between the AHL and NHL. He appeared in 36 games for Dallas scoring a goal and seven assists. The defenseman also dressed in 35 games with Texas scoring four goals and 12 assists.

McKenzie also split the 2014-15 season between the AHL and NHL. The 24-year-old appeared in 36 games with Dallas scoring four goals and an assist to go a long with 48 penalty minutes. The forward registered six goals and 21 points in 31 AHL games with Texas. His two-year, $1.4 million entry-level deal expires next month.

“We’ve talked to both, made contract offers and it’s just negotiations,” Nill said of Oleksiak and McKenzie. “It’s pretty straight forward. We’ll make qualifying offers and go from there.”

Goaltender Jhonas Enroth, who was acquired by the Stars from the Sabres in February, will go to free agency. The 26-year-old appeared in 13 games for the Stars following the trade going 5-5-0 with a 2.38 G.A.A. and a .906 save percentage.

Enroth was in the second year of a $2.5 million deal and will become an unrestricted free agent.

“I’ve talked to Enroth and told him we are going to look at the market,” Nill said. “He
wanted to look at the market. We are going to keep in touch.”

Dallas will also part was with forward Scott Glennie. Originally a first-round pick of the Stars (eighth overall) in 2009, Glennie appeared in just one NHL game during parts of five seasons with the organization.

Nill said defenseman Cameron Gaunce, who is a Group 6 unrestricted free agent, will also test the market.

“When you’re a kid and this is your first chance to be free, you want to see what is out there,” Nill said of Gaunce. “His goal is to make the NHL and he looks at our depth chart and he sees that we have 11 or 12 defensemen that have a chance to play in the NHL. He’s going to look around. We’d like to have him back, but for him it’s a chance to see if there is opportunity somewhere else.”

Nill said the club would not be offering restricted free agent Ludwig Karlsson a qualifying offer. The Stars acquired Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators in the Jason Spezza deal.

PHT interviews Jim Nill, who’s ‘not surprised’ by Stars’ early-season struggles

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The Dallas Stars won their third game in four tries Tuesday in Vancouver, shutting out the Canucks, 2-0, on the strength of a 27-save performance by goalie Kari Lehtonen.

There remains, however, a big gap for the Stars (12-13-5) to close in order to get back into a playoff spot — a surprise to the many pundits who were predicting big things from Dallas in 2014-15.

Just don’t count the team’s general manager, Jim Nill, among the shocked.

“Not surprised,” Nill told PHT Tuesday morning. “We had a great finish last year, found our identity, made a couple of trades. And the media hype, the player hype, everybody’s like, ‘Here we go.’ Well, it doesn’t happen that easy. Sometimes it’s one step forward and two steps back.”

Despite the victory over the Canucks, the Stars’ puck-management issues were apparent throughout the game. Only Lehtonen could keep a number of glaring turnovers from costing his team.

That was rookie Jyrki Jokipakka with the giveaway to Jannik Hansen. Jokipakka, 23, is one of two rookies on the Dallas blue line, the other being 22-year-old John Klingberg.

While Nill remains optimistic about the future of his largely inexperienced defense, he concedes the Stars might have to take their lumps in the present.

In November, Dallas traded veteran Sergei Gonchar to Montreal, opening up a roster spot for a young d-man.

“I kind of chuckle,” said Nill, “because when you’re struggling with the older guys, they’re like, ‘Let’s get the younger guys in and see what they can do.’ Now you get the younger guys in and they’re like, ‘Oh, we didn’t know there’d be this many mistakes.’ That’s the growth curve. Those things are going to happen.”

When Nill was hired in April of 2013, plucked from Detroit where he’d been with the Red Wings organization for nearly two decades, he knew he first needed to address the center position. In the short time since then, he’s added Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza in major trades. Both players are under contract through 2018-19.

Knowing the difficulty of adding a star defenseman in a trade, Nill is hopeful that what the Stars already have in the organization — including prospects Julius Honka, Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth, and Ludwig Bystrom — will be the answer for the blue line.

“We’ve got four or five good young kids, a couple more over in Europe that are coming over,” he said. “Now, are they going to be that No. 1 or No. 2 guy? I don’t know. We’ll see how they evolve. … If they are those type of players, great. If not, we’re going to be like everybody else and try and add that No. 1 or No. 2 guy. Not easy to do.”

In the meantime, it’s a matter of sticking to the plan.

“We’re a bad business in that patience isn’t a word we hear a lot,” he said. “We all start out with it, but then we lose it kind of quick. You can’t rush young players. Some guys develop quick. Tyler Seguin’s 23; now he’s one of the leading scorers in the league. That’s quick.”

Others take longer. Like 22-year-old goalie Jack Campbell, the 11th overall pick in the 2010 draft, currently with the AHL’s Texas Stars.

“Jack’s developing well,” said Nill. “He’s still a young kid. Because he was a first-round pick, everybody’s like, ‘Jeez, why isn’t he up here?’ Goaltenders take a long time to develop. He’s a young kid. He’s going through the highs and lows. He’s on the right path and we’re not going to rush him.”

All that said, Nill isn’t ready to write off the season. He may preach patience for the good of the future, but he expects better results in the now.

“I don’t think we’re as good a team as everybody had us, but we’re not as bad as where we are,” he said. “We still…we’re going to make the playoffs. That’s our goal. We need to go on a run here.”