The Pittsburgh Penguins are a much different team than the one that ended the 2014-15 season. Names like Craig Adams, Brandon Sutter and Maxim Lapierre are gone and they were replaced by Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel and Matt Cullen. It’s no question that the Penguins are a much deeper team, on paper, but there still are questions that need to be answered in training camp.
One of those questions is what do the Penguins do with veteran defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Rob Scuderi? They both were valuable members of Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup-winning team in the 2008-09 season. However, neither were youthful at the time and it seems age is beginning to catch up to them. Scuderi is still on a $3.375 million contract for the next two years and Gonchar remains on a professional tryout contract.
However, just take a look at what head coach Mike Johnston said about their defensive unit heading into the season.
Gonchar can fit into our system, I want to see how he handles camp and handles games. Our defense is fairly wide-open right now, I believe our back end will be a lot more active consistently. Sergei Gonchar is a player people know well here. You look at his track record, over 1,300 games, 800 points. He’s had a phenomenal track record at the NHL level. His puck decisions are really good. His poise with the puck is very good. Gonchar is a player we like because of how he plays. He can fit into our system. I want to see how he handles the camp, and how he handles the games.
Sure, it’s the first day of the Penguins’ training camp, but ever since they sent Gonchar with Evgeni Malkin to deliver season tickets, his spot on the roster was assured.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 15, 2015
Despite being a fan favorite, from a business standpoint, you do not send a player to deliver tickets who you do not plan on keeping around. It becomes a public relations mess to have to explain that a player who delivered tickets to fans will not be playing during the upcoming season. You can look at the bond that Malkin and Gonchar share and try to justify this move, but that’s looking at the situation from the outside as a fan.
Why Gonchar Will Make the Penguins’ Opening Night Roster
General manager Jim Rutherford had some more comments about the Penguins’ current defensive situation.
We want to start with eight defensemen just based on the competition we have going here. Each individual will take care of itself, based on how they play. Certainly, Gonchar will be a guy everybody will be watching. He’s had a very good career. We’ll see how much he has left. Can he keep the tempo? But he’s a smart player and I think he can contribute to our team. Now, we just have to watch these games.
There has been nothing but praise coming from the Penguins brass concerning the future of Gonchar. Let’s break down the information that we have currently. He’s now 42-years old and obviously had a brilliant career, as proved by the statistics Johnston mentioned, but how will the Penguins use him?
Well, if the plan truly is to carry eight defensemen at the start of the 2015-16 season, the most likely octuplet is Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin, Ben Lovejoy, Gonchar and Scuderi. There’s a common theme between all the players, excluding Scuderi; they are all great puck-moving defenders who jump into offensive play.
There’s a glaring problem with the proposed blue line and it’s a lack of size and physicality. Skill is being emphasized in the NHL and teams are not keeping enforcers around like they used to, but that still does not mean you do not need some physical players. When you look at the Penguins’ Metropolitan Division opponents like the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Washington Capitals and even the Philadelphia Flyers, and it’s hard to see how this blue line can be successful against the physically imposing style of play.
Moving further, all signs point to Gonchar making the Penguins roster, but what do they plan on using him for? He was a great offensive defender during his time in Pittsburgh, but his actual defensive play has always been suspect, and that has not improved with age. Many have suggested he could be kept around to play maybe 25 games during the season and be a calming presence in the locker room. However, if that does prove to be the case, what do the Penguins do with Rob Scuderi and his $3.375 million cap hit? Scuderi has been abysmal since returning to Pittsburgh and there is not a huge market to trade him.
So does Pittsburgh sit him in the press box every night? That would be logical move until they find someone willing to take his contract, but it’s doubtful that actually occurs. His veteran status and large contract make it hard to bench him every night. It’s a very confusing situation in Pittsburgh and it does not look to become any clearer within the next few weeks. The Penguins will be making a mistake if they give a contract to Gonchar and Pouliot is sent to the minors.
One thing is for certain: “Sarge” is back with the Penguins and it does not seem like he’s going anywhere.
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