September 2008 in a meaningless pre-season game, Sergei Gonchar was injured on an awkward "finish your check" hit by David Koci (then of the Tampa Bay Lightning). It would damage his shoulder and require surgery, knocking the Pens best and most experienced defenseman out until February. You know the story from there: Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien one game into Gonchar's return, yadda yadda yadda, the Pens went on a tremendous run and won the Stanley Cup.
Now, in October of 2009, Gonchar left a game against the St. Louis Blues, on what was described as "more like an awkward thing than a big hit or a hard hit" by Bylsma in his post-game comments. Bylsma noted that nothing further is available until tomorrow.
IF Gonchar will be again out of the lineup for an extended period of time -- which it should be noted is all speculative conjecture at this point -- are the Penguins better prepared for it this season rather than last season?
There's no doubt PIttsburgh stumbled and badly missed their defensive leader in his absence last season. Alex Goligoski, a veteran of only 3 NHL regular season games, played 45 games in 2008-09, mainly in Gonch's stead. Goligoski acquited himself admirably, racking up 6 goals, 14 assists and a +5 plus/minus rating. This year, with free agent defections, Goligoski is a full-time NHL'er and has 2 goals, 5 assists and a +9 rating in just these first nine games.
Along with Goligoski's full emergence as a legit NHL level defenseman, Kris Letang has continued his development, seeing his ice time rise from 18:09 (in 2007-08) to 21:08 last season to 20:46 in this young season. Letang's also on pace for a 45 assist season with 5 helpers in the first game games of the season.
The replacement to the lineup would be Martin Skoula, he of 724 career NHL games. Though Skoula has been shaky at times in his career, it seems he can step in and fill the 15 or so even-strength minutes that Gonchar's been recording at a level that won't handcuff the way the Penguins intend to play.
So, if Sergei Gonchar is indeed knocked out of the lineup for a while, the Penguins seem to be better covered than this time last year. Goligoski and Letang have more experience and are entrenched as solid players at their position. Skoula, though new to the team and system, has been practicing with Pittsburgh for weeks and ought to have the experience to lean on to become accustomed to step in.
It may also be worth remembering that Gonchar had to miss time to a knee injury in the 2009 playoffs. The Penguins won the game he got injured in, won the following game, and then lost an over-time contest to the Washington Capitals during that injury. In that high pressure moment of not having #55, it wasn't like they folded without him then.
There's obviously no replacement for the leadership, steadying presence and on-ice contributions that Gonchar adds to the Penguins. If you made a list of the most irreplaceable players on the team, one could argue Sarge would be #2, only behind Marc-Andre Fleury (rationale: lose one top flight center and the other can pick up the slack, as we've seen happen). Gonchar's return (whenever that may be) will provide the best boost to the team. If nothing else until that point, the team will have something to rally around to continue their excellent defensive efforts in the season to date.