Philly Sports Live

What We Learned: Why give Sergei Gonchar a tryout deal? (Puck Daddy)

(Hello, this is a feature that aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.) As NHL signings go, any one involving a guy who turned 41 in April comes across as a pretty big red flag. But the Sergei Gonchar deal Pittsburgh signed is extremely low-risk, being that it’s only a professional tryout contract. It’s basically a way to assess a player exclusively for a little while and, if things go well, they can sign him to a real deal shortly thereafter. If not, he’s gone and they face no penalty. This is basically the first of the training camp tryout invitees to make things official, but it’s still one that can be a little confusing to understand from the team’s point of view. Why not sign someone else — or rather, someone younger and better — to a tryout deal? Simply put, this locks Pittsburgh into at least one guy they think might still have some gas in the tank and tread on the tires (even if the latter is getting really, really bald and the former has been red-lining for the last 50 miles), which should’t be that big of a deal at this point. Meanwhile, it seems very likely that Gonchar, at his age, probably didn’t expect too many offers to come through the door in the month or so before camps open. Though it may not seem it on the surface, this is a mutually beneficial deal. No-risk quality assessment is a perfectly reasonable approach for any sort of a player, even one like Gonchar who doesn’t come across as a big threat to make the roster, and hey, it just might get him a job. In fact, when it comes to Pittsburgh’s particular situation, the idea of signing a 41-year-old who basically doesn’t appear to be able to play the sport at a competitive level any longer might not actually be a bad one. Gonchar got roughly average usage across his time with Dallas and Montreal as a 40-year-old, not playing a ton of minutes.  And predictably, he got run over. In terms of numbers relative to what his team did when he was off the ice, here is how Gonchar ranked among all 12 defensemen getting 700-plus minutes for both Dallas and Montreal last season: Fourth-bottom in possession, fifth-bottom in scoring chance differential, and third-best in goals-for. But given that last number, would it also surprise you to learn he likewise had the third-highest PDO for these teams? It shouldn’t. Now, could the Penguins theoretically use a guy who can drive goals? Sure. But unless he’s being used in an extremely limited role, Gonchar doesn’t really come across as a guy who can actually do that. He was close to 57 percent on the goal front at 5-on-5 last season, but that followed seasons of about 46.4 percent, 50.8 percent, 47.4 percent, and 41.8 percent since he turned 36. In short, he has done what a lot of defensemen over the age of 35 do: Deteriorate. Look, 40-year-old players are rare in the league to begin with. Since 2002-03, a defenseman has started the season north of 40 four times: Nick Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Teppo Numinen, and Gonchar. Obviously Gonchar and Chelios played seasons beyond that, while Numinen retired after that 2008-09 season. That Gonchar didn’t find himself getting healthy-scratched almost every night tells you a lot about his quality in some areas of the ice and reputation. But of this group of four, his usefulness was by far the lowest. But let’s just sit here and think about the Penguins’ blue line depth for a second.  Jim Rutherford has done a really good job of improving the team’s forward depth this summer, not only in getting Phil Kessel, but also shoring things up down the middle. But all that attention seems to have made him forget there’s a blue line to worry about. Kris Letang is there, sure, but if your next-best defenseman after that is Olli Maata, well, that’s a big drop-off. Especially because Maatta didn’t play a single game after December of last year. He’s probably match-fit at this point, but given his resume of 111 games in the NHL between the regular season and playoffs, banking on him as your No. 2 doesn’t seem prudent. But then again, that’s what’s going to happen. Because the other guys in the Penguins’ defensive depth chart are Rob Scuderi (no thanks), Ben Lovejoy (underrated but not great), Ian Cole (meh), Derrick Pouliot (promising), and Brian Dumoulin (basically no NHL experience). Tim Erixon is also in the mix back there, but who knows with that guy. Where does a defense that looks like this rank in the division? Even with the acknowledgement that this is a division with pretty bad D corps in general — Philadelphia, Carolina, and Columbus are all dire here — you have to say both New York teams are definitively ahead of Pittsburgh, as is Washington, and maybe New Jersey. So let’s say they’re fourth at best, if you acknowledge that a healthy Letang, which is certainly no guarantee (he’s missed more games than he’s played the last two seasons), does a lot of good back there. That’s really not a great group and, sad as it is to say this, Gonchar might actually provide decent cover as a No. 7 given the overall quality of the D corps and the other options that are therefore available. The Penguins have serious cap constraints (a little more than $2 million in cap space with 21 contracts on the books), and therefore probably can’t afford even a looked-over guy like Andrej Meszaros or Eric Brewer if they want to keep any sort of flexibility for the remainder of the season. Maybe Rutherford is hoping to be able to lure some more guys on training camp invites, but that’s a bit of a guessing game. The fact that Gonchar is any sort of option for an NHL team at this point in his career speaks mightily to the problems that team currently has on the blue line. But again, there’s no risk here, and if he does earn a contract, it’s probably because they think he can provide something that an AHL call-up cannot. They might be wrong about that, but it may be worth finding out. What We Learned Anaheim Ducks : If Carl Hagelin ends up as the guy who plays with Getzlaf and Perry for the next four years, this contract is going to be a mega-bargain. His speed could really be a difference-maker on that line. Arizona Coyotes : Shane Doan says he has no plans to retire . A fun fact about Shane Doan is that even after all this time with the organization, he only leads it in one statistical category: Games played. He has a way-outside chance of breaking Dale Hawerchuk’s goals-scored record (25 back) but he probably won’t hit Thomas Steen’s assists total (45 back) or Hawerchuk’s points record (67 back). When he plays six more games, he will be one of only two forwards in NHL history to play 1,400 career games and have fewer than 1,000 points. The other is Scott Mellanby.  Boston Bruins : When I think of “Torey Krug,” the word “ undervalued ” is not exactly springing readily to mind. Buffalo Sabres : Buffalo sports fans now have an official beer into which they can sob when their teams stink year after year. Calgary Flames : Hahaha. Oh boy . Carolina Hurricanes : The Hurricanes only have four road trips of three or more games this season? That seems quite low. Chicago : In the Patrick Kane case, why WOULDN’T you take the word of an off-duty cop and family friend who often is employed by the accused, and drove Kane and his alleged victim that night, at face value? Good thing he was able to get more victim-blaming quotes out there. Colorado Avalanche : This all seems to be in order . Columbus Blue Jackets : Is this new slogan because March is when the team’s season will effectively be over? Just kidding, they’re a bubble playoff team. But this is the kind of slogan that invites that kind of joke. It’s not my fault. Dallas Stars : The Stars’ goaltending probably can’t be as bad as it was last year, so that’s almost certainly gonna win them like 10 more points in the standings right there. They really didn’t need to spend all the extra money on it. Detroit Red Wings : College free agent Robbie Russo signed a two-year deal with Detroit on Sunday. Big-bodied player with lots of offensive talent, but if you aren’t out for most defensive-zone faceoffs for your college team, that seems like a major point of concern. He was basically what people think PK Subban and Erik Karlsson are. Edmonton Oilers : Ryan Nugent-Hopkins thinks the Oilers’ power play will be better next season . Given the talent level they have on their top power play units these days, you’d think their 12.2 percent shooting will rise at least a little there. Florida Panthers : You really shouldn’t say stuff like this . Los Angeles Kings : Tyler Toffoli, Blake Griffin, Justin Turner and Clayton Kershaw were all at an event to hand out school supplies — including book bags, pencils, and notebooks — to kids in underserved schools around LA. Good job. Minnesota Wild : Just as an aside from this , isn’t it weird how we all act like Thomas Vanek stinks now? Yeah he’s overpaid (which isn’t his fault) and his possession numbers aren’t great, but he had 52 points in a down year. If he threw the body around a bit more everyone would be falling all over themselves to defend him. “One-dimensional player,” yeah. If that one dimension is putting up 50-plus points every year, I don’t really care. Montreal Canadiens : Doooooooon’t . Nashville Predators : Real nice article on the growth of hockey in Nashville . New Jersey Devils : A ton of guys that New Jersey allowed to walk as UFAs this summer haven’t been signed yet . Try to find a less shocking fact this week. New York Islanders : Matthew Barzal threw the first pitch before Hisashi Iwakuma threw a no-hitter last week. This is what qualifies as hockey news in August. New York Rangers : The answer to this question – Dan Girardi. Ottawa Senators : How many “ guy who had a bit of an off season looks fully fit and will play better next year !” articles do you think we see every summer? Philadelphia Flyers : Two of the four Flyers who will “ bounce back ” next season are Andrew MacDonald and Vinny Lecavalier. Good luck to you all!!!! Pittsburgh Penguins : The Pens have a new practice rink and medical center that cost $70 million. Given the ownership rumors, though, maybe naming it after Mario Lemieux wasn’t too wise. San Jose Sharks : To answer the headline – Pretty much everything. St. Louis Blues : There’s being a homer and then there’s this . Tampa Bay Lightning : Tyler Johnson has turned his hometown of Spokane, Wash., into an outpost of Tampa fans. Maybe try to get an expansion team there. Fertile hockey market. Toronto Maple Leafs : Well, they couldn’t survive even with Phi Kessel’s offense, so you get to make up your own mind there. Vancouver Canucks : If you have an hour and a half, check out this hilarious Trevor Linden interview. The team doesn’t want to pursue a big rebuild. Why? I don’t know! Washington Capitals : The Caps could soon sign KHL-based Russian defender Ilya Nikulin. Not a bad idea. Winnipeg Jets : Almost nothing going on in Winnipeg this week, so yeah, the team looks ready to bid Jim Slater adieu. He was a Thrashers draft pick in 2002 and stuck around this long. Gold Star Award Just answering some fan mail from a big fan…… pic.twitter.com/XHNVAUHuys — Strombone (@strombone1) August 14, 2015 Roberto Luongo is pretty great . Minus of the Weekend