Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford went back to the future on Friday morning, as 2009 Stanley Cup champion defenseman Sergei Gonchar is set to return to Pittsburgh on a professional tryout contract.
For the 20-year veteran, even though this deal comes with the caveat of having to try out for the team, there was only one club that Gonchar zeroed in on when his contract with the Montreal Canadiens expired on July 1.
“The Penguins were the only team that I was looking at,” said Gonchar, who had 14 points (3G-14A) in 22 playoff games with Pittsburgh during its ’09 Cup run. “We’ve been talking for a while now. We had to wait for them to finish making all of their moves.”
The 41-year-old blueliner will arrive in Pittsburgh for training camp next month as the oldest member of the roster, three years the senior of the next-closest player, center Matt Cullen. Gonchar is coming with one goal in mind.
“My goal is to come to camp and show the team that I can still play,” Gonchar said. “Then I want to help the team in any way that I can. Whatever the team needs I’ll try to do. That’s the way that I am looking at it.”
During his first stint in Pittsburgh, a five-year run from 2005-10, Gonchar helped the Penguins in many ways both on and off the ice.
On the ice, he helped quarterback a power-play unit which ranked eighth in the NHL during his tenure. Individually, his 259 points (54G-205A) in 322 regular-season games ranked fifth among all league defenders, trailing only Nick Lidstrom, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Brian Rafalski.
Gonchar’s goal, assist and point totals all rank sixth-best among defensemen in Penguins history.
Off the ice, Gonchar was a calming locker-room presence who was especially valuable in molding some of the Penguins’ younger stars during that period, a group that included Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski and, most notably, fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin.
While Penguins fans might have been surprised to hear Friday’s news that Gonchar was returning on a tryout contract, Malkin was not.
“We talk regularly so (Malkin) knew it was going on,” Gonchar said. “Today we’ve only exchanged text messages, but we plan to talk later on tonight.”
Gonchar will be looking to crack a Penguins’ blue line that will be radically different from the one that opened last season. Only Letang, Olli Maatta and Rob Scuderi remain from the Oct. 9 opener.
Those three, plus late-season acquisitions Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy, figure to represent five of the seven-to-eight rearguards who will comprise this year’s defensive corps. Brian Dumoulin, who signed a two-year, one-way deal earlier this offseason, has the inside track for a sixth job.
That leaves Gonchar battling the likes of second-year pro Derrick Pouliot and a pair of defenders brought aboard via trade this summer, Adam Clendening and Tim Erixon, for one-to-two roster spots. Former Swedish Elite League veteran Niclas Andersen and three players on two-way deals – Will O’Neill, Steve Olesky and David Warsofsky – will also provide competition.
All summer, with each move he has made, Rutherford has stressed the importance of competition during camp. Adding Gonchar to the mix further increases that battle on the back end.
Whether or not Gonchar’s tryout bid is successful, he’s guaranteed to help the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins in some fashion, be it with his play on the ice, or by helping to provide competition and/or leadership that helps make his competitors better pros.