Sergei Gonchar: Washington’s Most Underrated Defenseman

Just as another NHL season was starting, one news story popped up this week that confirmed that one former NHL player’s career came to an end.

For some, it is understandable to treat this like it was an afterthought. Sergei Gonchar was clearly at the tail end of a 20-year NHL career and has struggled to look like he can last at the highest level of professional hockey for over three years. With 1,301 career NHL regular season games plus 141 in the playoffs and a Stanley Cup ring in 2009, the 41-year-old has been there and done that.

Gonchar’s Success in Washington

What hasn’t been written enough, though, is the impact Gonchar had for the Washington Capitals from his 1994-95 rookie season until he was traded to Boston in 2004. During those ten years, the defenseman would play 654 games and rack up 144 goals and 416 points. Only Calle Johansson, Rod Langway and Kevin Hatcher have played more games in a Washington sweater as a defenseman and only Hatcher scored more goals for Washington from the blue line. Along with that, three of his four NHL All-Star Game appearances were when he was a member of the Capitals.

In 1998, Gonchar was a part of the deepest defense corps in team history with Phil Housley, Johansson, Joe Reekie, Mark Tinordi, Brandon Witt and Sylvain Cote. That unit would go on to play in the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Finals appearance only to lose to the Detroit Red Wings in four games. Along with that, Washington would finish in the top-ten in total goals against five times in Gonchar’s first seven years in the league, along with finishing in the top-five three times. It was an era where the Capitals were more known for it’s suffocating, yet aging and boring hockey, than the skill that you see from the latest editions. Still, it wasn’t an era without success as the Capitals would be in the Stanley Cup playoffs in six of the ten years Gonchar was around.

There are reasons why Capitals fans might have forgotten about the former Russian point man. His trade to Boston came at a time when Gonchar was still at his prime at 29 years old and when Washington was starting their rebuilding process to become the Stanley Cup contender they are today. Also, his lone Stanley Cup title came as a member of arch-rival Pittsburgh. Still, Gonchar was part of a core that consisted of Peter Bondra, Olaf Kolzig and Johansson during the beginning of the 21st century and were the first memories of my hockey fandom. He was also a member of Washington’s 30th anniversary team in 2003.

He was so much of an offensive defensemen that he sits tenth all-time in hockey-reference’s offensive point shares among defensemen and he is ninth all-time in era-adjusted point totals among defensemen. All players ahead of him in both categories are currently in the Hockey Hall of Fame. During his Capitals tenure, only Brian Leetch, Al MacInnis and Ray Bourque recorded more offensive point shares as a blueliner. Until Mike Green’s 31 goals in 2008-09, Gonchar’s 27 goals in 2001-02 were the most of any NHL defenseman in the last 22 years.

Is Gonchar Hall of Fame Worthy?

Whether Gonchar makes it to the Hall of Fame or not is certainly up for debate. One thing that could go against him is the fact that he has never finished higher than fifth in the Norris Trophy voting for a single season. Along with that, he has only been voted in on two second team All-Star teams. According to 2014 edition of the Hockey Abstract, 43.8% of one’s predictive probability to make it into the Hockey Hall of Fame for a post-expansion era defenseman revolves around how many postseason all-star teams one makes. Other work that tries to predict Hall of Fame eligibility is Matt Pfeffer’s “HOF+” model. According to his work, Gonchar is considered a bubble candidate along with Bondra and former Capitals goaltender Pete Peeters. Even if he becomes selected, odds are it will not be for quite some time, just like Housley this year.

Whatever Gonchar’s legacy is in NHL history will certainly be determined for another time. At the very least, it was certainly not a dull one and one that should be celebrated throughout not just the National Hockey League, but the Washington Capitals as well.