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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.

The Buzzer: Pastrnak nets four; Blackhawks hand Oilers first loss

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Three Stars

1. David Pastrnak, Bruins: Pasta scored four goals and recorded his fifth career hat trick as Boston doubled up the Ducks 4-2. His linemate, Patrice Bergeron, was the last Bruins player to tally four in a game when he achieved the feat on Jan. 6, 2018 against the Hurricanes. According to the NHL, Pastrnak is now the third player in Bruins franchise history, along with Barry Pederson and Cam Neely, to net five regular-season hat tricks before turning 24.

2. Victor Olofsson, Sabres: While Carter Hutton denied the Stars all afternoon during a 25-save shutout in a 4-0 win, it was the rookie winger making history. The 24-year-old Olofsson recorded his fifth power play goal of the season and set an NHL record by becoming the first player to score his first seven career goals with the extra man. Via the AP, the Sabres’ 5-0-1 start has earned them a point in their first six games for the first time since a 6-0-2 start in 2008-09. Their 4-0-0 record at KeyBank Center is their best start at home since 2006-07.

3. Alex Stalock, Wild: Stalock’s 26 saves helped the Wild to their first win of the season with a 2-0 blanking of the Senators. The shutout was Stalock’s sixth of his career and first since Dec. 14, 2017. Minnesota’s shorthanded units get a shoutout here after killing off five Ottawa power plays. (The Senators’ power play, by the way, is now 0-for-17 on the season.)

Other notable performances
• Behind two goals from Brett Connolly, the Panthers erased a 4-1 deficit to top the Devils 6-4. New Jersey is now 0-4-2, their worst start to a season since they started the 2013-14 campaign 0-4-3.

Matt Barzal‘s goal with 27 seconds left forced overtime and Devon Toews completed the Islanders’ comeback with the winner as the Blues surrendered a 2-0 lead with less than six minutes to play.

Nazem Kadri and Mikko Rantanen each had a goal and two assists as the Avalanche downed the Capitals 6-3 to improve to 5-0-0.

James Neal scored his NHL-best eighth goal of the season in a loss to the Blackhawks that ended Edmonton’s undefeated season after five games.

Highlights of the Night

Jonathan Huberdeau needed only 16 seconds to open the scoring vs. the Devils:

• Agile Brad Marchand:

• Former Capitals Andre Burakovsky made his first visit back to D.C. as a member of the Avalanche:

• Nice sequence here by the Avs, which was finished off by Nikita Zadorov:

Factoids of the Night
• The Stars’ 1-5-1 start is the team’s worst since the franchise opened with an identical record in 1990-91 when they were the Minnesota North Stars.

• The line of Pastrnak, Bergeron, and Marchand have combined for 24 points through five games.

• Via AP, the worst start in Devils franchise history was 0-8-1 in 1974-75 when they were the Kansas City Scouts.

Scores
Bruins 4, Ducks 2
Wild 2, Senators 0
Panthers 6, Devils 4
Islanders 3, Blues 2 (OT)
Sabres 4, Stars 0
Avalanche 6, Capitals 3
Blackhawks 3, Oilers 1

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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.

Sabres’ Olofsson sets NHL record with another power play goal

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The Buffalo Sabres continued their early season surge on Monday with a convincing and thorough 4-0 dismantling of the highly disappointing Dallas Stars.

During the Sabres rookie forward Victor Olofsson (also known as Victor Goal-ofsson) scored yet another goal to open the scoring early in the second period.

It was Olofsson’s fifth goal of the season and the seventh of his young career dating back to his debut during the 2018-19 season. Why is this goal noteworthy? Because all seven of Olofsson’s goals in the NHL have been scored on the power play. That makes him the first player in NHL history to open their career with seven consecutive power play goals (since power play goals became an official stat during the 1933-34 seaosn).

The Sabres’ power play has been dominant through the first six games of the season and is one of the biggest reasons they are off to such a strong start at 5-0-1. Obviously they can not rely on their power play unit to keep scoring at a 42 percent rate (as they are through Monday’s game), but it is not like that is the only source of offense. They also have 14 goals during 5-on-5 play through the first six games. No matter the situation, they are finding ways to score goals.

This start is no doubt creating a lot of excitement in Buffalo, but there is probably an equal amount of skepticism after the way the 2018-19 season unfolded. Even so, the Sabres and their fans have to be thrilled with the current record and place in the standings. Now they just need to do something they have not done in almost a decade and find a way to keep building on it.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Pastrnak scores 4 goals for Bruins; Marchand ducks retaliation

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The thing that makes the Boston Bruins so scary for the rest of the Eastern Conference is that even when they are not at their best they are still capable of making teams look powerless against them because of their goaltending and the strength of their top players.

That was on display on Monday afternoon when they defeated the Anaheim Ducks, 4-2, to improve to 5-1-0 on the season.

This was not the Bruins’ most complete game of the season, but it was good enough.

David Pastrnak is a goal scoring machine 

The Bruins’ big three at forward are as good as you will find anywhere in the NHL.

Everyone already knows about Patrice Bergeron and his two-way play that allows him to control the game in every situation.

Brad Marchand may not be Bergeron’s equal defensively, but he has blown by him offensively and has been a top-10 scoring forward for about four years now.

Then there is David Pastrnak, who might actually be the best pure goal-scorer out of the three and the one that gets talked about the least. That may soon start to change. He was my sleeper pick for the Rocket Richard award at the start of the year, and he dominated on Monday afternoon with his first career four-goal game, proving all of the offense for the Bruins in their win. It was just the second four-goal game by a Bruins forward over the past 20 years (Bergeron did it during the 2017-18 season, before that you have to go back to Dave Andreychuck in 1999).

He has three consecutive 34-goal seasons, including 38 a year ago in only 66 games. After his performance on Monday the only players with more goals than him since the start of the 2016-17 season are Alex Ovechkin, Nikita Kucherov, and Auston Matthews.

This is already the third four-goal game in the NHL this season, joining Edmonton Oilers forward James Neal and Detroit Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha.

There were only four four-goal games in the NHL during the entire 2018-19 season.

Marchand’s troll game is already in midseason form

This is Brad Marchand at his agitating best.

He manages to get an extra shot in at Anaheim’s Max Comtois along the boards, and when Comtois tries to respond and get a shot in of his own Marchand still finds a way to get the best of him.

Marchand does a lot of things that are dangerous and make people justifiably mad, but this right here is kind of funny.

Goaltending masks a lot of flaws

Sometimes even the best teams will need to rely on their goalie to get them two points, and fortunately for the Bruins they have two goalies in Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak that are capable of doing that on any given day.

The duo entered Monday with matching .957 save percentages on the season as they continue to split the early season workload. On Monday it was Halak doing the work in net turning aside 30 of the 32 shots he faced.

This is a great setup for the Bruins because it gives them a No. 1 option in goal every single night, and by splitting the playing time it it allows Rask — still their best and most important goalie — to not get worn down over the course of a long season and be fresh when they need him most (during the Stanley Cup Playoffs).

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Devils crumble again, blow another 3-goal lead to remain winless

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When Pavel Zacha scored his first goal of the season just one minute into the second period it gave the New Jersey Devils a three-goal lead over the Florida Panthers and seemed to send them on a path that might finally give them their first win of the season.

They not only failed to win their first game of the season, they ended up allowing five consecutive goals on their way to a 6-4 loss, dropping their record to 0-4-2 and sending them off the ice to a chorus of boos from their home fans.

Free agent acquisition Brett Connolly scored two goals for the Panthers to start the rally (including one with eight seconds to play in the second period), while MacKenzie Weegar, Noel Acciari, and Evgeni Dadonov added third period goals to complete the rally and give the Panthers a much-needed win.

Three quick takeaways on the latest Devils’ meltdown to open the season.

1. This is the second time they have lost a three-goal lead

This is almost hard to believe, but Monday’s loss was already the second time this season the Devils have lost a game in which they have at one point held a three-goal lead. They have only played six games! Doing that twice in a full season is bad enough, but to have it happen within the first six games is just an awful look for everyone involved.

Along with Monday’s meltdown, the Devils also lost a 4-0 lead in their season-opening shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets.

2. Jack Hughes can’t buy a break … or a point

For one split second on Monday it looked as if the No. 1 overall pick in the draft was going to finally collect his first point. He had the puck on his stick, Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was down and out, only for Hughes to ring his shot off the post and stay out of the net. He slammed his stick in frustration and remained pointless through the first six games of his career.

This is the longest a No. 1 overall pick has gone without recording their first point since Steven Stamkos went seven games for the Tampa Bay Lightning at the start of the 2008-09 season.

The good news for Hughes is that Stamkos went on to have a solid rookie season with a strong second half and starting the next year was one of the league’s best players. So it is obviously not time to worry about him or his development. The bad news for Hughes is he doesn’t have the same excuse Stamkos had for his slow start — a coach that didn’t want to play him right away.

3. Is it make-or-break time for John Hynes?

Not to put too much on one game, but the next time the Devils take the ice will be  at home against the New York Rangers, their biggest rival and the other big spending NHL team this summer.

These two teams and their rebuilds were always going to be measured against one other given their rivalry and the parallels that existed with their offseasons (the top two picks in the draft, big-name acquisitions all over each roster), and if the Devils lose that game to fall to 0-5-2 — well, Hynes’ already hot seat will no doubt increase a few degrees.

This is all part of a six-game home stand and if the Devils can not find a way to scratch out a couple of wins it is not a stretch to think that some major changes could be on the horizon for what has been one of the league’s most disappointing and underwhelming teams.

They are not just losing, they are getting crushed in every possible area.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.