In a busy offseason marked by wholesale changes on and off the ice, it's easy to forget the move that kicked off the summer free-agency season in earnest.
About a month before the start of free agency, the Dallas Stars acquired the rights to veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for a conditional sixth-round draft pick. Three days later, the Stars announced they signed the Russian to a two-year contract.
More moves would follow, most notably the trade that brought centers Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley to Dallas from the Boston Bruins. But it's Gonchar who potentially could have the greatest influence this season on a young Stars team.
"Another piece to the puzzle, and he's kind of the forgotten man, is Sergei Gonchar," Dallas general manager Jim Nill told NHL.com. "I think he's really going to solidify our defense. He gives us a dimension we don't have a lot of. We have a couple of power-play guys, but not as high-end as Sergei."
Gonchar's arrival surely will give a necessary bump to a Stars power play that ranked 18th in the NHL last season. After all, the 39-year-old has been among the League's top power-play quarterbacks for almost two decades. Last season, when many predicted he would start slowing down, Gonchar showed there was plenty left in the tank.
An Achilles injury to defenseman Erik Karlsson appeared to put the Senators' season in peril last February, but Ottawa thrived without their star, due in large part to the poise and leadership shown by Gonchar, who tied for 12th in scoring among NHL defenseman with 27 points in 45 games.
Gonchar's world-class puck skills will prove useful on a Stars team that, with the exception of Alex Goligoski, does not boast much firepower on its back end. But it's Gonchar's experience, gained from a Stanley Cup victory with the Pittsburgh Penguins and loads of international competition, which should most benefit a club likely to have one of the League's youngest rosters this season.
"That was the other thing I wanted to add to this team," Nill said. "The young kids need a veteran presence. Now you have that presence in the dressing room that you need. I come from a situation in Detroit where you can never have enough veterans. They know how to win. It's a lifestyle every day of what you have to do to win. I know these veterans are going to bring that to the young kids that we have, which down the road will pay dividends for us."
There's one young player in particular whom Nill hopes can learn from Gonchar: Russian right wing Valeri Nichushkin, a first-round pick (No. 10) at the 2013 NHL Draft. Nichushkin has all the tools to someday become a force in the League. At 6-foot-4 and 202 pounds, he's already big enough to compete in the NHL, and his skills were prominent enough that he was named top rookie last season in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Having expressed his desire to play in Dallas, Nichushkin could learn a lot from Gonchar, who hails from the 18-year-old's hometown of Chelyabinsk. It's a mentor-protégé relationship that worked well for Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, who was taken under Gonchar's wing when the pair played together in Pittsburgh. When Malkin was awarded the Hart Memorial Trophy as NHL MVP in 2012, he made a point to thank Gonchar for his guidance and friendship.
The Stars would love to hear Nichushkin give a similar speech someday.
"It was never planned this way, but Gonchar mentored Malkin, so we're looking for that same mentorship now with Nichushkin. That's another exciting piece to the puzzle," Nill said. "I think Sergei is really going to help Nichushkin. We're just going to monitor [Nichushkin] real close and let him come in and see where he fits in. We've added enough depth where he doesn't have to be a go-to guy. He can just come in and play and that's going to be key to his development."
It's a lot to take on for one player, but the Stars have no doubt that with Gonchar, they've picked the right person to assume all these responsibilities. He has played that role for some time now and, as the active leader among defensemen in goals, assists and points, the five-time All-Star commands League-wide respect.
He'll need to utilize all those skills and all that veteran savvy if the Stars hope to take the next step and qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2008.
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