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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.

Berube’s coaching style well-suited to Blues’ roster

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

It’s not often that an interim coach is handed the keys to a last-place team and ends up winning the Stanley Cup in the same season.

Not impossible, as Craig Berube proved last season. Just incredibly unlikely.

Berube was as much of an X-factor for the Blues as, say, Jordan Binnington. Without Berube, who knows where the Blues would have ended up. The man known as a ‘Chief’ brought a disjointed team together and began sprinting toward the finish line at a fervent pace.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

The decision to hand Binnington the reins, an 11-game winning streak that followed suit, and a renewed camaraderie amongst the players all happened under Berube’s watch after Mike Yeo was handed his walking papers near the end of November.

“Craig made an enormous impact on our team when he took over last November,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said after the team stripped the interim tag and handed Berube a three-year deal. “He restored our identity and provided our players with a clear sense of direction.”

If that’s not X-factor material, I don’t know what is.

Berube is now tasked with maintaining the team culture he created with, by-and-large, the same contingent of players that he led to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

It’s a tall order.

Nothing was really expected from Berube when he took over. Sure, Blues fans and brass alike would have wanted to see things pointing in the right direction, but never could they have imagined what took place from Jan. 7 onward.

Ask any Blues player and they’ll say it was Berube that was the team’s catalyst as they reversed their fortunes.

Berube, as Armstrong said, instilled an identity and within a month or so, it began to take shape on the ice.

Berube showed that you don’t have to have a flashy team with many superstars to get the job done. And he’ll have another go at proving that is, indeed, the case.

He’ll have the “Stanley Cup hangover” to contend with an, perhaps, a pinch of complacency, even if it is only early on.

The biggest thing the Blues can do is get off to a good start. Stave off any of those hangover effects by stringing a few wins together to begin the season.

You won’t find the impact of a coach in a simple math equation (or a complex one, either.) But simply having a team believe in your cause is a massive boon to any bench boss. The players can now attest that Berube’s direction works, so they can certainly get behind his next installment as he develops the team into the rugged, hard-to-deal-with type that never gave up in last season’s playoffs.

There will be no surprises from the Blues this year. No underestimations from unsuspecting teams.

It will be on Beruble to navigate through that and more.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Blues’ Binnington faces whole new world in 2019-20

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

Come out of nowhere, steal the No. 1 job, win a Stanley Cup and get a nice payoff all inside six or so months.

It seems hardly believable. Impossible, really.

Yet there stands Jordan Binnington, a 26-year-old formerly journeyman goalie who, prior to puck drop in a Jan. 7 game against the Philadelphia Flyers, was simply a nobody in the NHL world.

Two-and-a-half hours and 25 saves later, Binnington had his first NHL win in his first NHL start and his first NHL shutout all under his belt. A flash in the pan? Far from it, apparently.

Binnington would feature in 29 games in the second half of the season for the Blues. His 24-5-1 record with a .927 save percentage and five shutouts during that span would pull the Blues all the way from the league’s murkiest spot in the basement to third-place in the Central Division.

And from there, he’d start all 26 games the St. Louis Blues played in the playoffs on their magical run to the Stanley Cup. Binnington would set rookie records for wins in a postseason and, ultimately, lift Lord Stanley with a 16-10 record, including a 32-save, .970 performance in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final to cement the Blues worst-to-first achievement.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three questions | X-Factor]

These things simply don’t happen, and yet Binnington willed it into existence with a ‘Do I look nervous to you?’ attitude that was only backed up on the ice.

Binnington’s emergence earned him a two-year, deal worth $4.4 million annually, making him the highest-paid goalie on the Blues (a mere $50,000 more than Jake Allen) and No. 1 status between the pipes heading into the 2019-20 season.

He’s earned it. And now the hard work begins.

There was no pressure on Binnington last season. Every win was met with awe, not expectation. If he had come in and failed, he wouldn’t have been labeled as a bust. If he had crashed out in the first round of the playoffs, he still would have been considered a success.

Winning the Stanley Cup? It’s still hard to fathom, really.

But now Binnington has some statistics to his name. The bar he set for himself is in the realm of the NHL’s elite. And somehow, he has to now make that translate into a full slate of NHL starts — perhaps as many as 60 next season.

That’s where the pressure lies.

Binnington is unproven as a full-time NHL starter, like Carter Hart in Philadelphia. Both had great seasons, but both only played half the year. So questions remain.

There’s nothing, at least at the moment, to suggest that Binnington can’t handle it. Sure, his save percentage dipped in the playoffs, but he handled the pressure of a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final with apparent ease.

He appears to be a true iceman when it comes to that.

Nevertheless, he’s now playing for a bigger payoff in two years after having bet on himself over the next two seasons. His long-term financial gain also hangs in the balance.

Binnington gave fans what they craved and now they’re only going to want more.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Can Blues repeat as Stanley Cup champions?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

Let’s ponder three questions facing the Blues.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

1. Can they do it all over again?  

If winning the Stanley Cup is the hardest thing to do in hockey, then winning it two years on the trot is that much more difficult.

One team in the salary cap era has been able to pull off a repeat and they had some guy named Sidney Crosby on those teams. The point is that it’s uber-difficult, but a question that every Cup champion faces.

This is the challenge the Blues now face with more or less the same team they won the Cup with this past June. Not much has changed in St. Louis since Alex Pietrangelo hoisted Lord Stanley for the first time in franchise history.

But can a team that was in last place in January and now feeling the effects of the Stanley Cup hangover do it all over again?

The NHL’s tightest-knit group has all the chemistry one could ask for and it’s largely intact from a season ago. And now they have all of that experience to lean upon, as well. But the Central Division is no push-over and several teams have strengthened their squads while the Blues have chosen to rely on what’s within.

It’s certainly a tall order.

2. Will Alex Pietrangelo’s lack of a contract extension be a distraction? 

He’s the team’s captain, talisman and one of the best defensemen in the NHL. And he’s (at this point) entering the 2019-20 season with a year left on his current deal and unrestricted free agency waiting for him next summer.

If you go back to December of last year, you’ll find a lot of ink was spilled where the best trade destinations for Pietrangelo would be. The Blues were an awful team at that point and the Blues, perhaps, could have capitalized on such an intriguing asset. They didn’t and were rewarded in the playoffs with a special performance.

His play during the Stanley Cup run will only have upped his asking price on the free-agent market. And the Blues need to decide on what to do before a John Tavares-like scenario becomes their own reality.

3. Is Jordan Binnington for real? 

We’re going to cover this in a separate post, but it bears mentioning here.

Binnington should probably have won the Calder Trophy for the NHL’s best rookie after he won 24 of 30 decisions he figured in with a .927 save percentage and five shutouts. The most impressive part of all of this is he didn’t start a game until early January.

Now, he could face a schedule with a workload double what he played last season. Those are uncharted waters for 26-year-old.

Binnington made the most of his opportunity when handed one last year. There were no expectations then, however. Now, they’re higher than ever.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

It’s St. Louis Blues Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

2018-19 

45-28-9, 99 points (3rd in the Central Division, tied for fourth in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Won Stanley Cup

IN:
Nathan Walker
Derrick Pouliot
Jake Dotchin
Andreas Borgman

OUT:
Jordan Schmaltz
Adam Musil
Nikita Soshnikov
Jakub Jerabek
Patrick Maroon

RE-SIGNED
:
Jordan Binnington
Joel Edmundson
Jordan Nolan
Samuel Blais
Zach Sanford
Robby Fabbri
Oskar Sundqvist
Carl Gunnarsson
Nolan Stevens

[MORE: Three questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2018-19 Summary

Well, that went pretty well, didn’t it?

No matter how many times you hear it, it’s still unbelievable to see the NHL standings on Jan. 3, 2019 and the Blues at the very bottom — 31st overall. Fast forward 160 days and they were hoisting the Stanley Cup celebrating the franchise’s first championship.

It was quite a season for the Blues, who fired head coach Mike Yeo on Nov. 20 after a 7-9-3 start. General manager Doug Armstrong turned to assistant coach Craig Berube to right the ship as the organization planned for a coaching search that would go far and wide.

Under Berube, the Blues didn’t improve much, going 9-10-1 in their first 20 games under the interim bench boss. But then came Jan. 7 and a game at Philadelphia featuring goaltending Jordan Binnington making his first NHL start, which ended with a shutout. Two weeks later they began a franchise-record 11-game winning streak that powered them up the Central Division standings. The winning ways continued through the end of the regular season as St. Louis earned 65 out of a possible 90 points in their final 45 games to finish tied for second in the division and fourth in the Western Conference.

Riding their red-hot goaltender and being led offensively by their summer acquisition in Ryan O’Reilly, the Blues took care of the Winnipeg Jets in six games, then the Dallas Stars in a memorable seven-game series before topping the San Jose Sharks in six games to reach the Stanley Cup Final. Their final foe, the Boston Bruins, needed seven games to be defeated, with O’Reilly winning Conn Smythe Trophy honors.

Through the unforgettable ride, the Blues adopted the 1981 Laura Branigan song “Gloria” as their theme after several players heard it in a Philadelphia bar in January. The DJ kept playing the song at the request of a customer and the players decided it would be played in the dressing room following wins.

“Play Gloria!” soon became the rallying cry and took over the city. Also becoming an important part of the Blues’ season was retiring anthem singer Charles Glenn, who continued performing as he battled multiple sclerosis, and 12-year-old Laila Anderson, who was diagnosed with a rare disease called Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocystosis. She became friendly with several players and was well enough to attend several games during the season and playoffs, including the team’s Game 7 victory over the Bruins in the Cup Final.

It’s interesting to think what would have happened had Armstrong not had the patience with the roster that he did and chose to blow up the team’s core before things changed. He stayed the course, chose the right coach to replace Yeo, and rode a hot Binnington to an unforgettable finish.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.