|In Sergei Gonchar, the Senators have added one of the elite offensive defenceman in the National Hockey League to their lineup (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images).
The Ottawa Senators didn't wait long to get their man.
Making a quick strike on the National Hockey League's free-agency market, the Senators announced today that they've signed veteran blueliner Sergei Gonchar
to a free-agent contract. The 15-year veteran was Ottawa's top target on the free-agent market, said general manager Bryan Murray, who had a deal done with Gonchar just minutes after the NHL free-agency period opened at noon.
The arrival of Gonchar, one of the league's elite power-play quarterbacks, instantly makes the Senators' unit much more formidable.
"He was our No. 1 guy," Murray told reporters earlier today. "You rate players, forwards and defenceman. He was the No. 1 overall guy by far, we felt. It’s great to block shots, but I’d like (to force) the other team to block shots. And you do that by having the puck, helping your forwards get the attack going and being creative, and in particular from the back end.
"Now, with Erik (Karlsson) and him and Filip Kuba
on the back end and a couple of kids coming, our mobility is considerably different ... (Gonchar) adds a lot to our team, with back-end mobility and (being able) to play the point on the power play. That's how you win games in the league now."
Even at age 36, Gonchar still remains one of the top offensive talents manning an NHL blue line and was considered by many to be one of the top prizes available in free agency. He produced 50 points in 62 games for the Penguins last season — the ninth time in 10 years he's hit the 50-point plateau — when he also became the first Russian defenceman to score 200 career NHL goals. Even though a shoulder injury limited him to 25 games in 2008-09, his return to health in time for the playoffs helped fuel the Pens' drive to the Stanley Cup.
During Pittsburgh's post-season run each of the last two years, Gonchar battled the Senators in the first round. During their six-game series back in April, he saw a team that he believes isn't far from being a serious contender itself and thinks he might be able to add a difference-making ingredient.
"I'm excited and I'm pretty happy to be there," Gonchar said from his off-season home in Florida. "Playing in Canada is very special to me. And second of all, I believe Ottawa has a very good team. They're probably missing a few pieces to really go far in the playoffs and, hopefully, I can fill one of them. We played against them last year in the playoffs and it was really a battle. It's not easy to play against that team.
"That team is very close (to being a top contender) and that's a reason why I'm signing with them. I'm excited to be going there."
The Gonchar signing also signalled the end of Anton Volchenkov's tenure in the nation's capital, as the Senators' top pick in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft signed a six-year free-agent contract with the New Jersey Devils. But Murray believes Gonchar is a better fit with the style of defensive play that is becoming more prevalent in the NHL today.
"He was the No. 1 overall guy by far, we felt. It’s great to block shots, but I’d like (to force) the other team to block shots. And you do that by having the puck, helping your forwards get the attack going and being creative, and in particular from the back end ... (Gonchar) adds a lot to our team, with back-end mobility and (being able) to play the point on the power play. That's how you win games in the league now." - Bryan Murray
"You’ve seen our drafts and what we’ve been trying to do," said Murray. "Two years ago, we drafted Erik and we made a trade this year to get another offensive defenceman (Swedish prospect David Rundblad) who’s going to step in here in another year or so. Some years ago, it was very different. You needed big, strong defending defencemen.
"(Today) you need a guy who can contribute offensively and help your forwards because of the structure and the coaching in the league now. So that what’s we’re hoping for. We took a little bit of a risk letting Anton go to the free-agent route, but we had to have the space financially and position-wise to take a chance on getting a guy like Sergei.
Added head coach Cory Clouston: "We're sad to see Anton go, but we know we have to turn the page. (Signing Gonchar) changes the dynamic. I think it changes the way teams are going to approach us ... I don't think we'll be as easy to play against."
Today's move, Murray said, also makes it unlikely that the Senators will be unable to retain the services of centre Matt Cullen or defenceman Andy Sutton, who both hit the unrestricted free-agent market at noon today.
"I like them both a lot," he said. "I thought they were very professional when they came here. I would have liked to have kept them both but financially, it doesn't appear realistic that we could do it."
Also today, the Senators re-signed forward Jesse Winchester
to a two-year contract. The native of nearby Long Sault, Ont., produced two goals and 11 assists in his second season in Ottawa, which was shortened to 52 games because of injuries.
"He's excited and we're excited for him," said Murray.