By MARK MADDEN
Sarge is out. Who’s gonna take his place?
No, the answer isn’t Jesus.
But defenseman Alex Goligoski is certainly showing the Penguins what he’s got. Now that he’s doing it in the absence of the injured Sergei Gonchar, I wonder how General Manager Ray Shero will approach negotiations to extend Gonchar’s contract.
There’s no doubt Gogo isn’t Gonch. But with the Penguins’ power play populated by a host of killers aside from Gonchar, all Goligoski needs to be is a reasonable facsimile. The Pens’ PP has underachieved the last two years even when Gonchar has been available to quarterback. Gonchar isn’t to blame, nor is he to credit. Perhaps the “too many cooks” theory applies.
Meantime, Goligoski piles up points: five goals and seven assists in 13 games and a stratospheric +11 mark. His game-tying goal at Columbus Oct. 30 gave him a seven-game points streak.
Goligoski is Gonchar Lite, a Xerox of a Xerox. But he’s got upside and is affordable, signed through 2011-12 at $1.83 million per.
Gonchar is making $5m in this, the final year of his deal, and his brittle nature is becoming a trend. To remain a Penguin, Gonchar will have to take a substantial pay cut. He may get rewarded with a lengthier deal if he does so. But Gonchar shows no inclination to take a cut just yet, and negotiations are on hold.
Gonchar is useful as homeboy to Evgeni Malkin, but that can only mean so much. Malkin, 23, is in his fourth NHL season. If need be, Shero can sign a cheaper tovarisch for Malkin.
The Penguins certainly shouldn’t trade Gonchar. Keeping him gives the Pens the best chance of winning the Stanley Cup again. If Gonchar walks at season’s end, so what? The Penguins are about RIGHT NOW. They’re not the Toronto Maple Leafs.
If Gonchar walks, it wouldn’t be all bad. Shero could use the money to re-sign Kris Letang, which must be done anyway. If the Penguins can keep only one, Shero must pick Letang over Gonchar. Letang is 22, Gonchar 35. Goligoski and Letang are both of Gonchar’s ilk, but both are young and still improving.
If Gonchar leaves, perhaps some cap room could even be used to get (gasp) a decent scoring winger.
The key for a GM in a sports league with a salary cap is knowing who to let go and when. If Goligoski can further develop his man-advantage acumen in Gonchar’s absence and get his defensive game a bit closer to Gonchar’s, Shero’s decision may make itself. Or perhaps Gonchar’s price will drop.
No guarantees. Goligoski struggled in the Pens’ first full game minus Gonchar Oct. 24 when New Jersey left Goligoski wide open on the power play while marking the four other Penguins man-to-man. Goligoski couldn’t exploit the extra time and space; the power play was 0-for-3 and the Penguins lost, 4-1.
But Goligoski netted the lone goal. Decisions, decisions.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
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