-- There almost always seems to be a then and now with highly skilled athletes who tackle the slippery slopes of the National Hockey League. And there's no difference for Pittsburgh Penguins
offensively-gifted defenseman Sergei Gonchar
on the eve of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final.
Ten years ago, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound defenseman from Chelyabinsk, Russia, was just 24 and he was playing in his third full season in the NHL, helping the Washington Capitals make it to the 1998 Stanley Cup Final, where they were swept in four straight by the Detroit Red Wings. In the here and now, he's back in the Final for the first time, playing a more complete defensive game for the Penguins. And lo and behold, he's again facing the Red Wings.
Gonchar can still remember the anxiousness, the excitement of getting to the Final, the hard work it took, just to get to his first championship series. He was still growing into his position. Exactly 10 years later, he's back in the same spot – and he's a more complete and responsible defenseman who goes head-to-head against the opposition's best forwards every night. And, lo and behold, he's again facing the Red Wings.
There's that then-and-now angle once again.
"It's hard to compare teams and eras," he explained on the eve of the Cup Final. "We were a young team in Washington and we got to the Final on good defense and the goaltending of Olie Kolzig. We couldn't handle their offense and we didn't win a game. This Pittsburgh team plays a different structure, a lot like Detroit does now. Good puck possession, great skill up front and a dependable defensive scheme."
The more important part of this then-and-now situation is the development of Sergei Gonchar, from defensive liability to a legitimate candidate for the Norris Trophy, given to the best all-round defenseman in the League.
"I think if he played in Canada, he'd be talked about every day for the Norris," sometimes defense partner Brooks Orpik told me. "His consistency is unparalleled. Look at his numbers, he's right up there with everybody."
"Before I got here, I always thought he was one of the smartest defensemen in the League," Marian Hossa said. "Now, after seeing him all the time, I'd say he's one of the top three. He's so smart that he doesn't have to be physical. To me, the smart defensemen are the guys that forwards hate playing against.
"I'd say Sergei is right up there with (Detroit's) Nicklas Lidstrom and (Anaheim's) Chris Pronger. I don't think he gets enough credit."
"He's the best in the league at what he does on the point on the power play," captain Sidney Crosby explained. "And defensively, he's just so well-positioned. And he's a great skater."
Gonchar, who just turned 34 on April 13, is the son of Viktor, a welder, and Raiesa, who worked for the telephone company back home. Sergei grew up in the same town as Sergei Makarov. He had that pedigree to follow as a youngster. But just before he became a teenager, Gonchar got a shock when his coach took him aside and told this wannabe forward that he was too slow, wasn't creative enough to play up front and should switch to defense. Rather than protest, Sergei accepted the change – and, while he wasn't exactly enamored at the time with the notion of stopping goals, rather than scoring them, it turned out to be one of the best career choices Gonchar would ever make. And, oh by the way, he began watching “Russian 5” defenseman Slava Fetisov a little more closely. That seems to have helped a lot.
And now, this clever Chelyabinsk defender has now played in 904 regular-season NHL games and 77 more playoff games.
Gonchar still has that great offensive skill on defense that made him the first Russian-born defensemen to score 20 goals in a season in 1998-99 – and he topped that with 26 goals for Washington in 2001-02. This season, Sergei was second in the game in points by a defenseman, his 12 goals and 53 assists placing him five points behind Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom.
Obstacle? There's always an obstacle for a player to overcome to reach that elite level.
"What's obstacle?" Gonchar asked. "No one thought I could play defense. No one."
OK. So we were all wrong, right? So what about the turnaround, Sergei?
"It started in 2002-03, when Randy Carlyle was an assistant in Washington and he told me he thought I could help the team more by playing quality minutes against the best players on the other team," Gonchar remembered. "Randy and Bruce Cassidy came to me and said, 'We think you can do this. And it's doesn't matter what people said before.' "
After that, Gonchar began to handle the puck better around the crease and in the corners. He began to prefer the simple play, improved his positioning in front of the net and became a more consistent performer when faced with an odd-man rush. The ability to join the forward rush remains, the booming shot still haunts goalies, the passing accuracy has not wavered.
Not like his career after Carlyle left Washington to become head coach of the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League and then head man behind last year's Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks. Cassidy was also gone and Gonchar was in limbo once again, getting traded from the Capitals to Boston at the 2004 NHL trade deadline. Fifteen games later in Boston and the lockout in 2004-05, the Bruins experiment was over.
Enter Pittsburgh and Gonchar's reinvention to complete defender under Penguins coach Michel Therrien, who replaced Ed Olczyk behind the Pittsburgh bench 27 games into the 2005-06 season.
He went from overpaid, underachieving, free-agent bust when Therrien wanted Sergei to take a bigger role with a very young Penguins defense.
"Good athletes like a challenge," Therrien said. "At least, that's always been my philosophy: put good athletes in positions that he has no choice but to perform."
His vision is the biggest thing, his best attribute. He uses that split second of time and space and finds teammates with the most pinpoint passes. And he catches opponents off-guard with those passes, which they think seem impossible to complete.
The last of this then-and-now story comes from the fact that Sergei Gonchar wound up with the Penguins, a team he could never beat when he was with Washington, going 0-for-4 against in the playoffs.
"The best part of it all," Gonchar said, "is that I'm even happier than I thought I'd be at finally playing with this team."