Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford spoke to the media yesterday, and it had to be music to Sergei Gonchar's ears.
Jonathan Bombulie from the Trib had the quote and some commentary
"We want to start with eight defensemen just based on the competition we have going here. Each individual will take care of (himself) based on how they play. Certainly, (Sergei) Gonchar will be a guy that everybody will be watching. He’s had a very good career. We’ll see how much he has left and can he keep the tempo, but he’s a smart player. I think he can contribute to our team. Now we just have to watch these games, but having eight defensemen in the early going makes some sense, and then we’ll see how that plays out."
To me, that just upped Gonchar’s chances of making the team tenfold.
With room for seven defensemen – Olli Maatta, Kris Letang, Ian Cole, Derrick Pouliot, Ben Lovejoy, Brian Dumoulin and Rob Scuderi – Gonchar’s chances weren’t great. With room for eight, they’re outstanding – albeit not a sure thing.
Not a sure thing because two of the top contenders along with Gonchar for the eighth spot – Adam Clendening and Tim Erixon, both acquired in offseason trades – would have to clear waivers to be sent to the AHL.
Rutherford saying the Pens will keep 8 defensemen is a departure from the previous norm. Usually NHL coaches like 7 defensemen (which is also sometimes a necessity due to the salary cap) based on practice space and logistics. Four full pairs makes for a long wait on drills for the regular defensemen.
Keeping 8 is a luxury. Gonchar, at 41, is a luxury type of defenseman. He could be (highly) sheltered at even strength and possibly used on the power play to help the team, under ideal circumstances if we hope for the best case. Which seems like a reach since Gonchar hasn't performed well in his recent seasons, and will only be older and slower now this year.
The other element would be risk. Would the Penguins be willing to risk both Clendening and Erixon to waivers? It wouldn't be terribly surprising- if they had kept the normal 7, it's likely both would have been waived if the team stayed healthy. Both young players have changed teams multiple times and failed to establish themselves. They now have just 3 weeks to prove that they're much better and more stable than the wily old veteran in Gonchar.
I don't know if it's wise, and I still don't know how many games he'll play (more than 1, less than 30 would be my way-too-early guess), but right now the runway looks cleared to bring Gonchar back for one more run.
Assuming Rutherford goes through with taking 8 defensemen - and usually when he's spoken publicly it has come to pass- what would the salary cap look like? We'll also assume that Gonchar will sign a contract for the NHL minimum for $575,000.
That's 13 forwards (only 12 healthy), 8D and two goalies. And the Pens are slightly under the salary cap. And even if they don't keep Gonchar but do keep 8 blueliners, Clendening ($761,250) and Erixon ($600,000) make slightly more than the $575k vet minimum.
So they're screwed for injury call-ups right?
Well, no, not necessarily- Eric Fehr won't be healthy to start the season - Rutherford estimated it would be at least a month into the season before he starts- and Fehr probably will be placed on long-term injury-reserve.
When Fehr gets healthy, the Pens will have decisions to make. Carrying 8 defensemen doesn't seem like a season long strategy. But the cap can be finagled and massaged at the beginning of the season to free up as much room as possible.
The Penguins have had a tight salary cap situation for 8 years. It's nothing new, and despite the problems from last season, it won't be a issue to have enough cap space to replace injured players unless it's in the last 10 games of the season and LTIR can be used.
If the Pens want to keep Gonchar and carry 8 defenseman, they can. At least at the beginning of the season. But, as we all know, hockey seasons play out in a funny, unpredictable fashion. Where the is a will, salary cap gurus like assistant GM Jason Botterill can find a way.
Right now the story-line to watch will be just how much Gonchar has left in the tank, and if his training camp performance can convince Pens coaches and management that he belongs on the squad this year. The bottom line seems clear: if Gonchar can give the Pens a reason to keep him past training camp, then they probably will.