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.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.