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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.

OHL goalie undergoes surgery after suffering nasty injury

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On Thursday night, the OHL game between the Niagara IceDogs and London Knights was cancelled after IceDogs goalie Tucker Tynan suffered a nasty injury to his leg.

The incident occurred in the opening minute of the second period when Tynan and a Knights player collided resulting in the 17-year-old suffering a nasty gash on his leg. Trainers and paramedics were on the ice for a while before they were able to take Tynan off the ice on a stretcher.

The young netminder was eventually taken to hospital where he underwent emergency surgery. Thankfully, the IceDogs were able to announce that Tynan’s surgery was a success and that he was in stable condition.

“You never expect an injury like that to occur so your first reaction is just to hope and pray for the player that has been hurt,” said Knights Associate General Manager Rob Simpson, per Global News.

“Right now we are all praying for Tucker and hoping he can have a speedy recovery.”

Similar injuries have occurred in hockey before. Former Sabres goalie Clint Malarchuk suffered a horrific gash to his throat in March of 1989. Also, Donald Audette’s wrist was cut by a skate in December of 2001, and Richard Zednik took a skate to the throat from a teammate while with the Florida Panthers. These injuries are all just so frightening and unfortunate.

There’s still no word on how long Tynan will need to stay in hospital or how long his recovery will be, but it’s just encouraging to hear that he’s doing better.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 30 free agents; Pacioretty’s career year

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Former NHLer Mike Brown explains how he was able to make it to the highest level. (Puck Junk)

• The Hockey News breaks down the top 30 free agents to be. (The Hockey News)

Justin Holl and Travis Dermott have really helped the Maple Leafs blue line. (TSN)

• It’s been a tough year for Wild defenseman Matt Dumba. (Hockey Wilderness)

• It might be time for the Preds to turn to Juuse Saros a little more often. (Predlines)

• What are the fancy stats saying about the Los Angeles Kings? (Jewels from the Crown)

Max Pacioretty is on pace to have a career year. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• The Coyotes have loaned Barrett Hayton to Team Canada for the World Juniors. (Five for Howling)

• The Blues are about to have a lot of tough decisions to make on their roster. (Bleedin’ Blue)

• It’s time for the Lightning to give Cal Foote a chance to make their roster. (Raw Charge)

• Is it time for the Devils to start worrying about Jesper Bratt? (All About the Jersey)

• Cayden Primeau is showing that he’s already NHL ready. (Habs Eyes on Prize)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Red Wings snap skid; hats off to Panarin

Artemi Panarin Hat Trick Rangers
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Three Stars

1. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks probably had no business winning this game. They were badly outshot, outplayed, and needed to rely on their goalie to keep them in it. Fortunately for the Canucks, Markstrom was up to the challenge and played one of the best games of his career as he stopped all 43 shots he faced in a 1-0 overtime win. He held on just long enough for Elias Pettersson to score the game-winning goal thanks to a fluky assist from an unlikely source. Read all about it here.

2. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. The Rangers spoiled Bob Boughner’s San Jose coaching debut with a 6-3 win that was highlighted by another huge game for Panarin. He scored three goals and added an assist in the win to continue his incredible 2019-20 performance. His first year with the Rangers has been everything the team could have hoped for as he is now up to 18 goals and 41 total points in 31 games. The Sharks, meanwhile, are now 0-5-1 in their previous six games.

3. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres. His point streak is now up to 15 consecutive games thanks to a two-goal effort in a 4-3 win over the Nashville Predators. It is the second game in a row that Eichel has scored a pair of goals as he continues to climb the NHL’s scoring leaderboard. He is unstoppable right now and trying to carry the Sabres to a playoff spot all by himself.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • The Detroit Red Wings’ losing streak has finally come to an end. They were winners for the first time since Nov. 12 thanks to a 5-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets to snap what had been a 12-game losing streak. Robby Fabbri continued his strong play since joining the team with a pair of goals while Filip Zadina recorded three points.
  • The Calgary Flames improved to a perfect 7-0-0 under new coach Geoff Ward thanks to a 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Johnny Gaudreau scored a pair of goals as part of a three-goal third period for the Flames to get the win.
  • Tristan Jarry recorded his third shutout in his past four starts for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they were 1-0 winners over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus coach John Tortorella had no words for his team’s lackluster performance. Read about it here.
  • Clayton Keller scored a pair of goals for the Coyotes in their 5-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks to put them back in sole possession of first place in the Pacific Division.
  • Eric Staal was in the lineup after a scary injury on Tuesday and scored a goal in the Minnesota Wild’s 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers.
  • Oskar Sundqvist had a goal and an assist for the St. Louis Blues in a 4-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Another strong start for Jonathan Quick as he stopped 36 out of 37 shots for the Los Angeles Kings.
  • Steven Stamkos scored twice for the Tampa Bay Lightning in a huge 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins.
  • Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee each had a pair of points in the New York Islanders’ 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers.

Highlights of the Night

It came in a losing effort, but Nashville’s Matt Duchene scored an absolute beauty of a goal in Buffalo.

Check out this quick tic-tac-toe passing by the Islanders to set up Mathew Barzal for a power play goal against the Panthers.

 

Eichel’s goal to extend his point streak was an absolutely perfect shot.

Blooper of the Night

The puck ended up getting lost in Markstrom’s equipment and he needed a lot of assistance in finding it.

Factoids

  • Panarin’s hat trick on Thursday was the third of his career, all of them coming with different teams. [NHL PR]
  • Joe Thornton played in career game No. 1,600 on Thursday, making him and Patrick Marleau the first set of teammates to have 1,600 games played in their careers. [NHL PR]
  • The Islanders’ points percentage of .733 is the second highest in franchise history through the first 31 games of a season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Buffalo Sabres 4, Nashville Predators 3
Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Boston Bruins 2
New York Islanders 3, Florida Panthers 1
Pittsburgh Penguins 1, Columbus Blue Jackets 0 (OT)
Detroit Red Wings 5, Winnipeg Jets 2
St. Louis Blues 4, Vegas Golden Knights 2
Minnesota Wild 6, Edmonton Oilers 5
Calgary Flames 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 2
Arizona Coyotes 5, Chicago Blackhawks 2
Los Angeles Kings 2, Anaheim Ducks 1
Vancouver Canucks 1, Carolina Hurricanes 0 (OT)
New York Rangers 6, San Jose Sharks 3

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.

Pettersson gets lucky assist from abandoned stick on OT winner (Video)

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Sometimes you need a little bit of luck to win in the NHL.

The Vancouver Canucks received a healthy dose of it on Thursday night.

They were 1-0 winners against the Carolina Hurricanes thanks to an incredible goaltending performance from Jacob Markstrom and an overtime goal from emerging superstar Elias Pettersson. Markstrom’s performance gave them a chance, but it was a stroke of good fortune and a filthy finish from Pettersson that put them in the win column.

While the stat sheet will officially give the assist on Pettersson’s goal to Brock Boeser, the real assist came from an abandoned stick that previously belonged to Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin. As the Canucks controlled play in the offensive zone, Slavin lost his stick in a battle for the puck with Boeser.

It would prove to be costly for the Hurricanes because, well, watch for yourself in the video above.

Maybe Pettersson still ends up collecting the puck and scores the winner anyway if that stick isn’t sitting there. But Slavin’s stick sitting in the exact perfect spot made it significantly easier for him to score the winner.

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.