In one month, in a city he has grown to hold dear, 20-year NHL veteran Sergei Gonchar makes his final stand.
Gonchar signed a tryout contract with the Penguins on Friday, the team announced. That guarantees him a spot on the training camp roster and a chance to show there’s still something left in his 41-year-old legs.
If he succeeds, he’ll get an NHL contract for the season and one more chance at the glory he enjoyed with the Penguins’ Stanley Cup-winning club in 2009. If he fails, he said he’ll head back to Russia to finish his career.
“I just wanted to play for that team,” Gonchar said. “It’s not about the money or the years. It’s going to be special. Being with Pittsburgh is the reason I’m doing it. I still have a lot of friends on that team, in that town. It was a special place for me and my family.”
With 811 career points in 1,301 games, Gonchar is among the 20 highest-scoring defensemen in NHL history. He had 259 points in five seasons with the Penguins from 2005-10.
Gonchar started last season with Dallas on the second year of a two-year deal that paid him $5 million per season. He was traded to Montreal for winger Travis Moen in November.
With the Canadiens, Gonchar’s primary contributions came on the power play. He ranked third among the team’s defensemen in power-play ice time and power-play points.
“He really is a smart player,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. “He’s one of those guys who still has a chance to play at this point in his career. I wouldn’t give him an invitation to camp if he didn’t have a chance. If he can show that he can keep the pace, he brings a dressing-room presence.”
Gonchar’s leadership, in fact, might be his greatest asset at this stage in his career.
He has, by all accounts, a close relationship with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the team’s biggest stars. Malkin lived with Gonchar while breaking into the league a decade ago, prompting an obvious question.
Will Malkin return the favor and at least offer Gonchar a couch during his tryout?
“I’ll have to see what he says,” Gonchar quipped.
Joking aside, Gonchar theoretically could be an effective mentor for young defensemen Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot and Brian Dumoulin.
“If they want me to, of course,” Gonchar said. “I’m always happy to help if the guys want it. I’m always comfortable talking, sharing my experiences. We’ll see. They have some pretty good young guys, so maybe they’ll be the ones helping me.”
If Gonchar performs well enough in camp to earn a spot on the team, Rutherford would have to rearrange his defensive chart to make room, perhaps cutting ties with a veteran or unexpectedly sending down a promising youngster like Pouliot.
According to Rutherford, that won’t be an impediment preventing Gonchar from making the team.
“We’re here to win,” Rutherford said. “Whatever guys we can put together to give us the best possible chance to do that is what we’re going to do. I already know ways of making room, as long as Sergei makes our team. I’m not concerned about that. He doesn’t have to out-do himself. He just has to play.”