Bill Meltzer: Star Gazing: Gonchar’s Role

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There were many things that went right for the Dallas Stars during the 2013-14 season. Something that didn’t go so well was the apparent decline of the team’s pair of 40-something year old players: forward Ray Whitney and defenseman Sergei Gonchar.

Whitney, who remains unsigned as an unrestricted free agent, will not be back with the Stars. Gochar will.

He has one season remaining on his contract, which carries a $5 million cap hit.

Last season, Gonchar struggled mightily in just about every facet of the game. He had trouble keeping up with the pacing of the Stars’ high-speed style of play. He had issues with turnovers and coverage gaffes. His advanced stats were ugly. Even his offensive game, which has always been Gonchar’s bread and butter, rarely clicked.

Early last season, head coach Lindy Ruff paired Gonchar with fellow offensive defenseman Alex Goligoski. The hope was that the two former Penguins teammates would click and Gonchar’s size and strength might balance off Goligoski’s lack of size. The pairing turned out to be a disaster, especially in the defensive zone.

Once separated, Goligoski got his 2013-14 season on track and went on to have a productive year. Gonchar never righted the ship, and his role was increasingly reduced as the season progressed.

Stars beat writer Mike Heika recently “brought up a point that older veterans who who are accustomed to carrying heavy workloads sometimes struggle to adapt to smaller roles for which they may seem well-suited on paper as they age.

There are many examples of this around hockey, and Gonchar seems to be a prime example. His best hockey in recent seasons came while he had to shoulder an increased burden in Ottawa while Erik Karlsson was out for an extended period of time with an Achilles tendon injury during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. It may have also helped that Gonchar was an impending unrestricted free agent that year and had plenty of motivation to show he could still elevate his game.

Unfortunately for Gonchar, his play last season in 76 regular season games and the Stars’ first-round playoff loss to the Anaheim Ducks pushed him down to the periphery of the starting blueline. Players such as Jordie Benn and even Kevin Connauton gained greater trust from Ruff as the year progressed.

Gonchar averaged 17:36 of ice time last season over the full regular season but his usage dropped to approximately 15:56 per game from February onward. In the playoffs, he played just 13:24 per game and still got charged with seven giveaways and a minus-three rating at even strength while failing to post a point in the series.

Any way one slices and dices Gonchar’s 2013-14 season, it was not nearly good enough. Producing 22 points and a minus-12 was flat out unacceptable from a player who started 57.6 percent of his shifts in the offense zone, averaged 2:28 of power play ice time per game, and faced the lowest Corsi difficulty of opposition among all Stars regular defenseman from a puck possession standpoint.

Ruff did his part as a coach by putting Gonchar in the sorts of situations under which he’d usually thrived during his 1,200-plus game NHL game. Unfortunately, the 40-year-old player simply did not deliver.

As training camp approaches, Gonchar appears likely to remain in a reduced role. Heika raised the possibility that Gonchar could even wind up a healthy scratch at times next season if some of the young defensemen in the organization step up into regular NHL roles. That would not be a favorable situation for a player with his cap hit — although neither Ruff nor general manager Jim Nill are going to worry about keeping a player based solely on his cap hit.

Gonchar has a modified no-trade clause. The Stars can trade him between January and the 2015 trade deadline, per Capgeek.com. He could, of course, be traded sooner with his permission. However, even in a League that covets (and hordes their own) proven veteran blueliners, Gonchar currently has little appeal as a trade target.

One area where Gonchar undeniably had value last season was as an off-ice mentor for Russian rookie Valeri Nichushkin. This is a role Gonchar played in the past, especially in Pittsburgh, and it undoubtedly helped Nichushkin cope with the sometimes bumpy transition from living and playing in Russia to adapting to both the NHL’s on-ice and off-ice demands while learning how to speak English. This can be a lonely and difficult transition that often comes much harder to players from Russia than it does for players from elsewhere in Europe.

Tomorrow, I will discuss expectations for Nichushkin in his second NHL season. It is likely that he will still have bouts of inconsistency. The sailing won’t always be smooth as the expectations increase. Nevertheless, the 19-year-old right winger has laid a good foundation from which to build a fine NHL career. If Gonchar can continue to help Nichushkin along that path and also buy some time for the young defensemen in the organization to gain experience, he will maintain a level of value to the organization this season that goes beyond his statistical output and ice time.

This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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