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Pens lose Gonchar, add Michalek, Martin on blue line

by Dan Rosen
Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero had a Plan B all along – and he had to put it into motion at noon ET Thursday when Sergei Gonchar became an Ottawa Senator and it became clear he wasn't going to sign Dan Hamhuis.

The Penguins erased the sting of losing Gonchar, their best defenseman over the last five years, by signing a pair of stalwart blue-liners in their own right. First they went with the powerful, stay-at-home type in Zbynek Michalek for a five years and $20 million, and then they went with the slick, puck-moving type in Paul Martin for a five years and $25 million.

The team released the terms of both contracts.

Shero was able to add an element to the blue line that was missing last season (power) and replace the element that he lost (offense) when Gonchar signed with Ottawa for three years and $16.5 million.

Martin, who is also seven years younger than Gonchar, also comes off the roster of one of Pittsburgh's Atlantic Division rivals (New Jersey), and that always helps. He should slide in as one of the Penguins' top defensemen and a key man on the power play, just like Gonchar was for the last five seasons.

Pittsburgh, which also lost Jordan Leopold to Buffalo and expects to lose Mark Eaton as well, now has a blue line that includes Michalek, Martin, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski. The first four are signed through 2014 and Goligoski will be a restricted free agent after the 2011-12 season.

"I was pretty clear over the last couple of weeks about addressing our defense," Shero said in Pittsburgh Thursday. "By getting Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, I think we've done that. We've got a great corps of defensemen right now that are signed for a number of years. They're at the right age I think. That's the area we targeted to improve our team the most. Today, we're pretty thrilled."

A second-round draft pick of the Devils in 2000, Martin played six seasons in New Jersey, piling up 163 points and a plus-55 rating in 400 games. He was limited to only 22 games this past season and had to back out of playing for Team USA in the Olympics due to an arm injury that required surgery in December.

Eleven of his 26 career goals have been scored with the man-advantage. He led all Devils' defensemen with 18 power-play points in 2008-09 and 14 in 2007-08.

"Nobody is going to replace Sergei Gonchar. Sergei is an extremely talented offensive player, good for 50, 60 points," Shero said. "What we'll get in Paul Martin is a really smooth skating defenseman, great stick, good defensively. His offensive production might be a little bit better than what he's had in the past. He's a real solid all-around player. He can play lots of minutes, an effortless skater."

Michalek was considered one of the pieces the Coyotes could not afford to lose because he was the anchor in front of Vezina Trophy-finalist Ilya Bryzgalov. TSN reported before noon Thursday that Phoenix was trying to work out a deal to keep Michalek, but apparently couldn't get it done in time.

"I really enjoyed my time in Phoenix but at the end of the day it didn't work out and I have a chance to play with Pittsburgh now," Michalek told the Penguins' Web site. "I am coming to a really great organization with a lot of talent. They compete for the Stanley Cup every season so that is something I was looking for because I am a competitive guy and I want to win. I see a really good chance to do that in Pittsburgh."

It's possible that Shero saw how difficult it was for the Penguins to contain Michael Cammalleri in the playoffs this past spring and realized the need for a stalwart, stay-at-home blue-liner was there. Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup in 2009 with Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi as its stay-at-home pair.

Michalek reportedly earned $1.5 million last season when he had 17 points in 72 games but was 15th in the NHL in blocked shots with 156. He also led the Coyotes in ice time per game (22:38), a significant stat for a guy that played on a team that won 50 games.

"When I talked to Ray and Dan (Bylsma) they said they are looking to improve the defensive play of the team," Michalek said. "They want me to play the same defensive style that I played in Phoenix. I had a defensive role in Phoenix where blocking shots was a big part of my game. I will keep trying to work on that and keep getting better because that is one of my strengths."

"I was pretty clear over the last couple of weeks about addressing our defense. By getting Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, I think we've done that. We've got a great corps of defensemen right now that are signed for a number of years. They're at the right age I think. That's the area we targeted to improve our team the most. Today, we're pretty thrilled." -- Penguins' GM Ray Shero

Shero confirmed reports that he offered Gonchar a two-year contract and he wasn't willing to go any further. He said it was all business and he praised Gonchar for being "a fantastic player and maybe a better person on and off the ice."

Shero said Gonchar will be missed.

"We went into the last day, really the last night, about 11:30 p.m. I texted Sergei and asked him to consider one more thing. It wasn't meant to be," Shero said. "He's had a fantastic stay here, five years, a Stanley Cup, classy and dignified, represented us really well. I'm really happy for him. They got the three-year deal they were looking for. Ottawa will be a great place for him."

There was little concern expressed for Evgeni Malkin's state-of-mind now that his good friend and buffer, Gonchar, is off to Canada.

"He has assured me that if Gonch doesn't come back that that is Gonch's decision and that he will be fine," Shero said. "He has a number of good friends on this team. He has been over here for four years now and he is out (living in Pittsburgh) on his own.

"Having said that, what Sergei and (his wife) Ksenia did for Geno, you can't pay that back. They will still be training together in the summer. Geno is going to be fine and he will be ready to come back and have a real good year for himself."

Shero also said he was in negotiations with Hamhuis prior to noon Thursday, "but we never got close before 12 o'clock." He gave up a third-round pick to get Hamhuis' negotiating rights.

"I would do it again," Shero said. "It's competitive to get defensemen when they are free agents. I had four days to talk to Dan Hamhuis and I didn't have to spend time talking to him today. If I didn't have that opportunity maybe I would have missed out on somebody. I think it worked out well."

With his defense taken care of, Shero said he'll turn his focus to wingers. Bill Guerin remains an unsigned unrestricted free agent and an option to return to Pittsburgh, and Shero said he hopes to hear from Guerin's camp if they get an offer from another team.

"I can't say Billy is out of the picture at this point," Shero said. "We'll see how things shape up. The one promise I have to Billy is if we are going to move in another direction we are going to call him and let him know and vice versa."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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