Sergei Gonchar sits high atop the ice surfaces and watches every Pens’ game, whether at home or while traveling on the road with the team.
Following the games, he takes film and further dissects the play of the team’s defensive unit, taking copious notes.
“After the game I’m usually sitting at home watching the game again,” Gonchar said. “I’m usually watching the shifts of players on defense and how they played in certain situations. When I watch the game the second time I’m taking notes so I can tell them the next day what I think and what to do in those situations.”
Gonchar cuts the clips down and then watches the video with every member of the defensive corps to point out better ways to handle certain situations.
“This is probably the easiest way for them to see the difference because it’s always good when you have a visual and you can compare some styles,” Gonchar said. “That’s why we came up with that. It seems like they’re responding to it well, too.”
The Pens coaching staff goes over the bigger picture items with the team as far as systems. But when it comes to the minute details of the game, that’s where Gonchar steps in.
“A lot of it is with the subtleties of the game,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “The only way you learn those type of subtleties, you have to be in those situations to understand what works and what doesn’t work. I think Sergei brings that to our group.”
The players have certainly been receptive to Gonchar’s instructions.
“Sergei will take you individually and show your stick position, how to get your shots off quicker and other little things that happen in a game,” Brian Dumoulin said.
Gonchar has made the transition to the Pens’ Defensemen Development Coach from his playing days. He attended camp on a try-out basis in September, but couldn’t crack the team’s lineup.
After deciding to retire, Gonchar has taken the mantle of helping the team’s defensemen improve both at the NHL level, as well as throughout the team’s minor-league system and scouting European tournaments.
“We’re moving along,” Gonchar said of his new role. “Obviously when you’re playing there are things you want to work on. Everyday we want something to do whether it’s watching video or working on the ice. I feel like we’re making progress on the things we’re working on.”
Gonchar’s pedigree speaks for itself: 1,301 career NHL regular-season games, over 800 points and 1 Stanley Cup championship.
So when Gonchar speaks, the players listen.
“He’s going to be, in my mind, a sure fire Hall of Famer,” Ian Cole said. “Anytime you have a guy with his caliber that was arguably a top-5 defenseman when he played in an era with (Niklas) Lidstrom and (Scott) Niedermeyer is great, and he was right there with those guys. Anytime you can have a guy that knowledgeable and with that experience is amazing.”
The coaching staff also appreciates the weight Gonchar pulls.
“The players have a lot of respect for him,” Sullivan said. “A lot of guys have played with him, played against him or watched him. They have a lot of respect for him. We certainly do as a coaching staff. We really value what he brings to our group.”
And one thing all the defensemen pointed to was Gonchar’s attention to detail, even if it is as small as how to angle your stick on a chip pass or how to head fake on a puck retrieval.
“He always brings something to the table and always has something important,”
Dumoulin said. “It’s definitely something I’ve not thought of before. They’re all just little details.
“Like stick detail in the defensive zone, playing the puck and how to go in for retrievals without forwards being able to lift your stick or get body position on you. And also, our shots from the point early in the season weren't getting through, but Sergei showed us some clips and taught us how to become more available for the forwards and how to get shots through.”
Part of that detail is working with players on their own individual level. After all, Kris Letang isn’t Dumoulin. Justin Schultz isn’t Ben Lovejoy. Each defenseman is uniquely different and requires different attention.
“They’re all good players, but different,” Gonchar said. “It’s why we work with them individually and there’s obviously some things we learn together as a group. Some things we do as a team, but at the same time each player has a different skillset and we work with them individually.”
And while each member of the defensive corps is unique and different, the same can be said about their mentor.
“(Gonchar) has that experience to draw from and is always thinking how to play a guy or how to position yourself,” Cole said. “That innovative thinking paired with his experience is certainly something that’s a very tough combination to find.”