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Welcome aboard, Sergei!

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

BROSSARD – If Sergei Gonchar is eagerly anticipating his Canadiens debut, it’s safe to say his new teammates are as well.

On Wednesday, Michel Therrien and his troops shared their thoughts on the acquisition of the 20-year NHL veteran, who came over in a trade with the Dallas Stars in exchange for Travis Moen a day earlier. Unsurprisingly, the consensus inside the locker room is that the 40-year-old rearguard has all of the tools to be an impact player in Montreal from the start, particularly when it comes to turning the team’s struggling power play around as soon as possible.

“First of all, he’s a great person. I’ve known him for a long time. He’s a great hockey player. He’s a leader. It’s good for us to have him here,” praised fellow Russian defenseman Andrei Markov, who has played alongside Gonchar at the Winter Olympics and the World Hockey Championships. “The move [to acquire Gonchar] shouldn’t surprise anyone because we’ve struggled a little bit on the power play. He’s a great player for it. He’s a great player all around. Hopefully, he’s going to help us move forward with the power play, and move forward in everything else.”

And, why wouldn’t he? Not only is Gonchar the active points leader among NHL defensemen with 219 goals and 798 points in 1,256 regular season games, but 102 of those markers and 423 of those points have come when his team has benefitted from a man advantage. In other words, the one-time Stanley Cup champ boasts an extensive history of power play success.

“He’s a guy who has made a career out of his work on the power play. We’ll see how things play out, but he’s definitely a guy with a lot of experience who has always been known for his vision and quick thinking on the power play,” offered Therrien, whose contingent currently ranks 28th in the league when up a man, lighting the lamp just over seven percent of the time on the season. “The addition of Gonchar will allow us to play with the elements that we have. We have to work as a unit of five. Communication is important. From what I see right now, we have forwards and we have defensemen. We have to get them talking.”

That was the focal point of Therrien’s lesson plan as practice got underway on Wednesday at the Bell Sports Complex. The Canadiens’ special teams units worked against one another at both ends of the rink to try to find a solution to their power play struggles.

“It was a very productive day where we changed a little bit of the setup and the personnel. We got a little more in terms of looks and a little more one-timer options. That’s what’s important. We definitely felt comfortable out there, which is weird coming off a game where we were so horrible on the power play. The coaches did a pretty good job of drawing up different things. Now, it’s just a matter of the players executing,” explained Max Pacioretty, who sits tied for the team lead alongside Tomas Plekanec with 11 points through 16 games. “I think from what we’ve heard and seen about Gonchar, he can definitely contribute in areas that we’re lacking in right now, on the power play and a little bit offensively. It’s going be an honor to play with a guy like that. He’s had so much success. Hopefully, I can learn a lot from him.”

One player who also plans on absorbing as much knowledge from Gonchar as possible is Nathan Beaulieu, who, at 21 years of age, is still in the veritable infancy of his NHL career.

“I think a guy like Gonchar is never going to hurt your club. I’m excited to see what he can bring, and he’s definitely a guy that I can learn from. He’s a great addition and everybody in the room is happy to have him here,” offered Beaulieu, who has been held off the scoresheet through 10 games in 2014-15, registering a minus-2 differential during that span. “I have the opportunity to be on the ice every day with elite guys. Players like Markov and Gonchar have been in the league for a long time. I can grab whatever I can from them, learn and try to get better. If I’m not in the lineup, I can use it as a development tool to get better for when I get back in there.”

And, while Beaulieu might take a back seat to Gonchar when the four-time Olympian dons the CH for the first time, Pacioretty insists the young rearguard will undoubtedly benefit from the vast experience the newest Habs defenseman brings along with him north of the border.

“You’ve always heard stories about how he took guys like Evgeni Malkin and Valeri Nichushkin under his wing. Coach told me that he’s such a great guy and he’s so good with his teammates. I think a guy like Beaulieu can learn a lot from him because he definitely wants to eventually play the game that Gonchar plays, and everybody wants to have that type of career,” concluded Pacioretty. “Not to get too far ahead of myself, but seeing the way Beau wants to play, and the way management wants him to play, I think he could be a good mentor for him. We’re excited to see what happens.”

As is the rest of the Canadiens’ fan base across the globe.

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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