The Pittsburgh Penguins officially announced this morning that Defenseman Sergei Gonchar has opted to undergo arthroscopic surgery on Thursday to repair his dislocated left shoulder. The injury was the result of a hit by Tampa Bay forward David Koci during the Penguins’ first pre-season game against the Lightning on September 20. Gonchar concluded that surgery was necessary after seeking opinions from three separate orthopedic specialists. The surgery to be performed by UPMC physician Dr. Mark Rodosky will repair cartilage and ligament damage to his left shoulder. Unfortunately for the Penguins, the recovery time for returning to a contact sport is projected at 4-6 months.
Undoubtedly the team’s leading defenseman, the Penguins will definitely miss Gonchar in the lineup. The gravity of his loss is underscored by the fact that Defenseman Ryan Whitney is already out of the lineup for the first 3-4 months of the season as a result of recent foot Surgery. Together, Gonchar and Whitney were the top-2 D-men for the Penguins last season. Gonchar finished 4th in scoring with 65-points (12G, 53A) and Whitney was 7th with 40-points (12G, 28A). Gonchar also led Penguins D-men in +/- with a +13, and has been a highly effective quarterback of the Penguins’ power play. The loss of Gonchar could also have an impact on Evgeni Malkin who has relied on him to help cross the language barrier.
In Gonchar and Whitney’s absence, the Penguins will have to rely on their defensive depth to step up and fill the gap. While the Penguins do have good depth when it comes to capable defensemen, they lack the offensive punch that Gonchar and Whitney provided. The most likely candidate to step up into that offensive role would be Darryl Sydor. With 1-year remaining on his 2-year contract and little opportunity to be in the top defensive pairing, Sydor was rumored to be asking for a trade going into this season. Now that Gonchar and Whitney have been sidelined, Sydor will be a critical asset to the Penguins. At age 36, he is 2-years older than Gonchar and has played offensive D-man role before for the Dallas Stars. In 7-full seasons with the Dallas Stars, Sydor posted 292-points (60G, 232A) averaging 42-points per season. His offensive production has dipped in the past few seasons, likely the result of age, position and ice time. With the Penguins, he has not yet had the opportunities afforded to the top defensive pairing. This could well be his opportunity to regularly play alongside the team’s elite players and regain his role as a top defenseman in the NHL.
Aside from Darryl Sydor, the Penguins existing options for scoring defensemen starts to diminish rather quickly. Mark Eaton, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi are all strong defensively, but will not fill the void when it comes to scoring. Hal Gill is probably good for 15-20 points, but his size limits his speed and will prevent him from effectively moving up on the rush. Sophomore Kris Letang had a strong season last year and will likely be called upon to increase his offensive production. However, it remains to be seen if he can significantly improve on his 17-point (6G, 11A) production from last season. Rookie Alex Goligoski, the only prospect defenseman that is still with the team, will likely get an opportunity to contribute in the regular season. After a 38-point (10G, 28A) contribution in Wilkes-Barre last season, he is an exciting prospect. However, these kinds of numbers do not routinely translate from the AHL to the NHL.
Bottom line, the extended loss of Sergei Gonchar will be a big, noticeable loss for the Penguins. If the Penguins are unable to find the right amount of offense out of the remaining defensive corps, Ray Shero could find himself looking at possible early season trade options. While it is too early to speculate much more on that, it is something for Penguins fans to keep in the back of their minds as the season gets underway this weekend.