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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.

Advice for new Wild GM Bill Guerin

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In a lot of ways, it’s fitting that the Minnesota Wild announced Bill Guerin as their next GM during Ottawa Senators Day at PHT.

After all, Guerin is stepping into a GM gig that might be just as tough as what Pierre Dorion is dealing with in Ottawa, even if the challenges are different.

Despite missing the playoffs in 2018-19 and failing to win a series from 2015-16 through 2017-18, Craig Leipold continues to drink the Kool-Aid, rather than pulling off the Band-Aid. He wants the Wild to contend, so if any rebuilding happens, it needs to take place while the Wild also try to compete.

Mock former GM Paul Fenton all you want, but that isn’t exactly an easy juggling act.

The question, then, is will Guerin be able to juggle better than Fenton? (After all, he does have the hands of a former NHL sniper.)

Here’s some friendly advice for Guerin because, frankly, he’ll probably need all the help he can get.

1. Find out who wants out

As a former player, Guerin likely has a leg up on most GMs when it comes to being able to relate to other players. That might come in handy when it comes to a sensitive subject: waiving no-trade and no-movement clauses.

Theoretically, it would be awkward to have such a conversation with a veteran player who’s meant a lot to the franchise, whether that be Zach Parise and his seemingly eternal contract, or Mikko Koivu on a one-year deal. Yet, as we’ve seen from Parise doing some summer soul-searching with The Athletic’s Michael Russo (sub required), some of these players have already pondered moving on. It’s easier to have such chats when you’re accomodating a veteran player trying to win that elusive Stanley Cup than it is to ask if you can uproot their family via a trade, after all.

2. Identify your core, and don’t settle

Such clause talk brings up some tough decisions for Guerin when it comes to who is a core Wild player and who is expendable.

As stuck as the Wild seem right now, it’s remarkable how much of a clean slate Guerin can enjoy in the not-so-distant future … at least if he makes smart calls. Via Cap Friendly, the Wild have about $9.5M in cap space, although RFAs Kevin Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek still need deals. Even if the cap remained at $81.5M, the Wild’s 2020-21 cap space would rise to $22M, and then all the way up to about $44M heading into 2021-22.

With that in mind, Guerin needs to be cold and calculating. Should the Wild sign Jared Spurgeon, a soon-to-be 30-year-old defenseman who figures to be expensive following this upcoming contract year, or would it be smarter to trade a quality defenseman for what could be a big haul, and build for the future? The Wild have already seen how bad a long-term contract can look, and while Spurgeon could age gracefully, he could just as easily become another albatross.

Spurgeon isn’t the only tough call, but he’s among the toughest.

[From Wild Day at PHT: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

3. Invest in analytics

Firing Fenton after a bit more than a year wasn’t the greatest look for the Wild, but the silver lining was that it kept Fenton from flubbing a Jason Zucker trade in the same way he made the worst blunder of his time, the atrocious Nino Niederreiter trade.

According to Russo’s scathing, incredible rundown of Fenton’s reign in Minnesota, the Niederreiter trade was essentially made during a Florida retreat where the Wild’s top analytics staffers weren’t even invited.

The dream would be for Minnesota to be cutting edge, yet at a minimum, Guerin can avoiding shooting himself in the Fenton … er, foot.

4. Bring in your people

On the other hand, Russo’s reporting also enforced why it can be so important to surround yourself with people you trust.

As much criticism as Fenton drew in that piece regarding being paranoid about leaks … it also is worth mentioning that stunning details ended up leaking out of Minnesota about Fenton’s foibles. Is that ironic, or Alanis Morissette ironic? Considering all that surfaced, can you blame Guerin if he poaches some of the people he knew from Pittsburgh?

Guerin must aim for the right balance between hiring people you can trust, and fresh faces who innovate. I’d wager there’s a sweet spot between Lincoln’s “team of rivals” and Jon Gruden sending his scouting staff home during draft time out of paranoia.

5. Manage Leipold

Perhaps reality will slowly dawn upon Leipold that the Wild need to at least reboot things a bit. In the meantime, though, Guerin needs to hit the right buttons: keeping this team reasonably competitive, without totally mortgaging the future for marginal present-day gains.

***

Chances are, there will be missed shots here and there for Guerin, but if he gets big picture decisions right where Fenton right wrong, the Wild might just become the top-shelf team Leipold demands.

Eventually.

MORE:
• Did the Wild learn from the Fenton era?
• Why the Wild are better off being terrible this season
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Three questions for Senators 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 Ottawa Senators.

Let’s take a look at three questions surrounding the Senators that don’t revolve around mercurial owner Eugene Melnyk.

1. Can D.J. Smith start building something?

Ideally, Smith will begin with Ottawa much like David Quinn started his time with the Rangers: as a coach with very limited expectations.

Honestly, it would probably be best if the Senators “lost respectably” in 2019-20. Score some goals, excite some fans, and maybe distract from the mess surrounding the team at times.

In the grand scheme of things, Smith will be able to help Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk to continue their ascent up the rankings among young NHL blue chippers, while also helping to develop the team’s more mid-range prospects. Bonus points if Smith can also put veteran players in the right situation for “pump and dumps” during the trade deadline, whether that means helping Craig Anderson maximize his value, or merely others in positions to succeed.

Basically, there are ways Smith can “succeed” even if the Senators don’t really win the battle on the scoreboard very often. They don’t seem to have the weapons necessary to light up many scoreboards, either way.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. What defines “success” for this team, in general?

And that really brings it to another question: what should Ottawa really be striving for?

Yes, there’s a chance that Smith innovates and this team overachieves, but even if that happens, what’s the ceiling for such situations?

The worst-case scenario might be that the Senators play so well that they end up in the playoff bubble, but can’t quite make it, so they also end up with a mediocre first-rounder. It would also be quite bad if a relatively competent Senators team inspired Pierre Dorion to decide against trading veterans who aren’t likely to be part of the future, from Anderson to Ron Hainsey to maybe even a more borderline case like Chris Tierney.

Yes, there’s some young talent in Ottawa, but they should be greedy and try to grab as much as they can. Especially since it’s unclear how many of their current prospects will actually move the needle. After watching the Avalanche use their fourth overall pick in 2019, the Senators could really use at least one more player in that range.

Being realistic about their chances is pretty important, and it’s part of what makes Dorion such an X-factor.

3. Can the Senators get some stops?

Despite having Mark Stone and Matt Duchene for a significant chunk of the 2018-19 season, the Senators still were outscored by 59 goals, allowing an NHL-worst 301.

Losing Stone, in particular, should make it that much tougher to keep the goal differential battle respectable, as Stone is one of those rare wingers who gets very deserved attention as a Selke candidate. On paper, there’s little reason to believe that Ottawa will be a particularly competitive team, especially with so many young players learning on the job.

Maybe D.J. Smith’s system might make life a little easier for Craig Anderson, though? Anderson suffered through some terrible play the past two seasons (.898 save percentage in 2017-18, not much better with .903 in 2018-19), yet the 38-year-old has had some great runs in the past, often when people least expected it.

Even with great goaltending, the Senators’ chances are limited, but it would probably do a lot for their collective psyche – and maybe even their young players’ development – if they could at least put up a fight most nights.

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

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Senators GM must manage a rebuild — and Melnyk

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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 Ottawa Senators.

Ottawa handing Colin White a six-year, $28.5 million contract was more than just conveniently timed for Senators Day here at PHT. It was also a pivotal moment for a big Senators X-factor: GM Pierre Dorion.

To be more specific, this team’s future hinges on how Dorion manages the Senators’ rebuild … and in what might be an even bigger challenge: managing owner Eugene Melnyk.

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

You don’t have to be an accountant to notice that, at least in the short term, the vast majority of the Senators’ moves have been about saving money. It’s to the point that people are already joking that White will be long gone from Ottawa before his actual salary peaks at $6.25M in 2024-25:

But that really was an eye-opening signing because it shows that Dorion can occasionally convince Melnyk to fork over dough for “core players.”

It will be interesting, then, to see how the rest of that core develops, as there are some other potentially pivotal contracts to sign, and Dorion will eventually need to add pieces, whether that means NHL-ready players through trades and free agency, or additional prospects through the volume of draft picks the team has (painfully) accumulated by trading away the likes of Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, and Matt Duchene.

Consider Thomas Chabot the next pressing test case. He’s entering the last year of his rookie contract, so will Ottawa get that done briskly, or will that situation linger ominously? There’s nightmare scenarios where another team poaches Chabot with an offer sheet, knowing that Melnyk seems allergic to signing bonuses.

Dorion truly needs Melnyk on board in cases like these, especially since more are on the horizon, notably with Brady Tkachuk‘s entry-level contract expiring after 2020-21.

There are a ton of factors that could sway things as time goes on, from Seattle’s expansion draft to possibly even a new CBA forming as the Senators’ rebuild goes along. Such thoughts might complicate things if Melnyk believes that a new CBA would be kinder to his wallet.

But, even in the shorter term, Dorion could make some interesting moves if he’s creative — and in cases like retaining salary to get trades done, if he can get Melnyk to buy in.

I’ve already argued that the Senators should embrace short-term pain for long-term gains, not unlike the Hurricanes absorbing Patrick Marleau’s buyout to land a first-round pick. That’s not to say Ottawa needs to clone such moves detail by detail; instead, the point is that Dorion should be creative, and also embrace the likely reality that this team is unlikely to be any good this season, so they might as well build for the future.

That’s where the 2019-20 season presents interesting opportunities.

Craig Anderson seems long in the tooth, but he’s surprised us before with seemingly random near-elite years, and what better time for the 38-year-old to pull another rabbit out of a hat than this one, where he’s in the last season of a deal that carries a $4.75M cap hit?

That sounds like a hefty sum today, but it would be manageable for a contender around trade deadline time, where they could “rent” Anderson. Maybe Ottawa would take on a contract a contender doesn’t want (perhaps Anderson to the Calgary Flames in a deal that involves Cam Talbot and Michael Frolik, if Talbot doesn’t work out) for the price of picks and prospects?

Ottawa doesn’t have marquee trade bait like they did with Karlsson, Duchene, and Stone last year, but you can land nice assets for mid-level players, too, from Anderson to someone like Chris Tierney.

There’s only so much Dorion can do about Melnyk’s penny-pinching ways, whether the Senators owner is truly just being “cost-conscious” now only to eventually spend when it’s time to contend, or if that “unparalleled success” talk was merely just talk.

But as we’ve seen with teams like the Carolina Hurricanes, you can build something pretty special even while dealing with budget constraints. You need some creativity from a GM, and an owner who will spend money when it counts.

Is Dorion up to the task? So far, the results have been mixed, but how he handles this situation (now, and in the future) is an enormous X-factor for the Senators.

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

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Former Rangers and ‘Miracle on Ice’ player charged in attack

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GRAND MARAIS, Minn. — Mark Pavelich, a forward on the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic hockey team who went on to play for the New York Rangers and two other NHL teams, has been charged with assault for allegedly beating a neighbor with a metal pole and breaking several of the man’s bones.

The 61-year-old Pavelich allegedly attacked his neighbor last week at Pavelich’s home in the small Lake Superior community of Lutsen, Minnesota, after they returned from fishing, authorities allege in the criminal complaint. Pavelich told investigators he believed the man had “spiked” his beer, leading to the alleged attack, the complaint says.

First responders found the neighbor in shock with “obvious disfigurement of his leg,” KMSP-TV reported. He also had a bruised kidney, two cracked ribs and a fractured vertebra.

Pavelich faces charges of second- and third-degree assault, possession of an illegal shotgun and receiving a gun with an altered or missing serial number. During a hearing Monday in Cook County District Court, the judge ordered a mental competency hearing for Pavelich, who didn’t have an attorney listed in online court records as of Wednesday.

He remains in custody in lieu of $250,000 bail, the Star Tribune reported.

Pavelich played five seasons with the Rangers and parts of one season each with the Minnesota North Stars and San Jose Sharks, compiling 137 goals and 192 assists in 355 NHL games. He also played professionally in Europe.

Pavelich had two assists in the United States’ 4-3 win over the Soviet Union in the semifinals of the 1980 Olympic tournament. The U.S. went on to beat Finland in the final to win the gold medal.

In 2012, his 44-year-old wife, Kara, died in an accidental fall from a second-story balcony at their home. Two years later, Pavelich sold his gold medal for $262,900 through an auction house, saying he wanted to help his adult daughter.