Across the board, Penguins management, coaches, and players say the team can still keep Sergei Gonchar. Universally, all sides say he can still come back next season.
To a man everyone in the locker room applauded Tuesday’s news that Gonchar’s fellow defenseman, Kris Letang, just signed a 4 year contract extension to stay in Pittsburgh to the tune of $3.5 million per season.
The NHL salary cap, however, was not available for comment.
Letang’s new contract prevents him from becoming a restricted free agent at the end of the year. However, Gonchar is still slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st.
Elsewhere on the blue line, the Penguins have $3.75 million tied up Brooks Orpik against the salary cap next year. Alex Goligoski will cost $1.8 million. Gonchar is apparently still seeking more than $5 million per year for perhaps three years or longer.
Add in all the big contracts of Crosby, Staal, Malkin, and Fleury and it maybe be difficult to still squeeze Gonchar back onto the team underneath the 2010-11 cap. It doesn’t appear as if Gonchar’s agent (J.P. Barry) will be negotiating with general manager Ray Shero until after the playoffs end as the two sides broke of negotiations around the Olympic break.
Thus, getting Letang’s deal done now appears to have been a recently concluded Plan B. But is keeping Gonchar still Plan A for the off-season?
“This doesn’t affect Sergei at all. This was part of our plan…to sign Kris Letang,” said Shero after practice Tuesday. “I’m hoping we can have Sergei back. Gonch has been a fantastic player here for five years. Hopefully we’ll have him for more.”
Shero insists the lack of talk between the sides now is actually a good thing because the league salary cap number will be clearer after July 1st. Gonchar also remains optimistic about staying in the ‘Burgh, claiming he believes Shero’s statement that Letang’s deal won’t affect his own negotiations.
“Ray has been an honest guy since day one. So if he is saying that, then, yeah…I believe him,” claimed Gonchar after practice.
One major concern for the Penguins is that neither Goligoski nor Letang seem ready to take over for Gonchar as a full time power play quarterback. The Penguin power play has been bad all year (23rd in the league currently) regardless of whether or not Gonchar has been on the ice.
But at times with Gonchar out of the line-up (he as missed 19 games this year due to illness or injury), it has looked flat out putrid with Letang and/or Goligoski in charge.
Shero didn’t directly answer whether or not he sees the possibility of Letang becoming a true power play point man, claiming instead to focus on Letang’s “two way” development.
But Gonchar himself said he sees Goligoski as a more likely replacement for himself should a contract fail to be hammered out in Pittsburgh.
“Alex is more ready for it. He has more experience. Kris is a little behind him. But they both have that ability.”
Twenty-four assists this year is a career high for Letang. And Gonchar praised Letang’s position defensively and complimented his increased confidence. But he also stated Letang needs to finish more scoring chances.
Letang’s inability to hit the net consistently has become a point of Penguin fan angst at Mellon Arena. The 22-year-old has a vicious, yet wild shot which tends to test the Mellon Arena glass more than it does the opposing goaltenders. Dubbed Kris “LeClang” by some, the mercurial Montreal native has just three goals on the year thanks to a 1.8 shooting percentage. Letang echoed Gonchar’s assessment.
“Yeah, I’m trying to get my shot on net as often as I can. I have 14 shots in two games. Now I’m trying to get my shot on net and create some offense,” says Letang.
If he and Goligoski (just seven goals in 63 games) do end up replacing Gonchar as a tandem next year, they both have a long way to go….even though Gonchar is coming towards the end of his career and may be dipping in production himself.
As mentioned, the team states it has wanted both players back all along. But if that can’t happen, clearly Shero was hoping one or the other would’ve made the decision more clear. Either it was hoped that Letang (&/or Goligoski) would’ve improved so much that Pittsburgh could afford to let Gonchar skate away to another team thus saving an exorbitant salary cap hit. Or it was hoped that Gonchar would prove he has hardly lost a step and would be worth locking up to a big sticker price for another three or four years.
But now the reality is Shero had to make a safer and more cost effective move: sign the 22-yer old with upside and hope he gets better. Hope the same for his 24-year old partner in crime. And hope the 35-year old veteran comes back for less money than expected this summer to bridge the gap in the meanwhile.
If that doesn’t happen. The Penguins better hope Kris LeClang turns into Kris LeBang as soon as possible.