The biggest question for the Pittsburgh Penguins coming into the 2010/11 season was how the changes in their defensive ranks would affect the team. Most notably, how would the team recover from the loss of Sergei Gonchar? Not just a scoring threat on the blueline for the Penguins, the veteran Gonchar was the team’s smooth skating powerplay quarterback, provided a calming influence both on and off the ice, and served as a Russian speaking mentor for Evgeni Malkin. His importance to the organization was demonstrated by the fact that, despite missing 20-games to injury in 2009/10, he still ranked 3rd in points for the Penguins. And the defensive changes extended well beyond the loss of Sergei Gonchar, with Mark Eaton, Jordan Leopold, and Jay McKee also leaving the Penguins’ lineup. General Manager Ray Shero quickly invested in free agents Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to help offset the defensive losses, but the signings offered no guarantees for the Penguins who would also need other players to step up and fill in the gaps.
Now just 8-games into the new season, it looks like some of those questions surrounding the loss of Sergei Gonchar and the roster changes to the Penguins’ defense can start to be answered. And so far, it’s all good.
First, despite an offense-first approach, the team has played solid defensively. Pittsburgh’s defensive game has remained strong despite injuries that have sidelined its best defensive forward (Jordan Staal) and two of its top defensemen (Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek). While only 10% of the season’s games have been played, the Penguins have staked out an early identity as being defensively sound. They rank 9th in Goals Against per Game and 2nd amongst all teams in plus/minus (+6). Individually, Kris Letang ranks 2nd amongst all NHL players with a +9. Alex Goligoski (+6) and Paul Martin (+5) rank 10th and 11th in the league, respectively. This isn’t to say that the team doesn’t experience occassional defensive gaps, but on the whole they have been quite solid especially in the context of the injuries. They have also gotten help from the good play of Ben Lovejoy who competed for and won his place in the Penguins roster coming out of training camp. The Penguins also have shown that they have depth at defense to cover down while Michalek and Orpik are out of the lineup.
Second, the Penguins’ defense has contributed significantly to the team’s offensive production. Penguins’ defensemen occupy 3rd through 5th places in point production on the team, just behind Sidney Crosby (11-points) and Evgeni Malkin (8-points). Kris Letang leads the Penguins’ defensemen with 8-points (2G, 6A) in 8-games, while Paul Martin (1G, 6A) and Alex Goligoski (3G, 4A) follow close behind with 7-points each. Letang and Goligoski have each picked up a game winning goal for the team. Letang, Goligoski, and Martin also rank 2nd, 3rd, and 4th amongst all league defensemen in scoring in the early going. This is an area where Gonchar delivered for the Penguins, so it is good to see the current roster stepping up to help offset the loss of his production.
Third, despite a somewhat slow start, the Penguins’ powerplay is starting to produce results as they find ways to be effective without Sergei Gonchar at the helm. Gone are the days of Gonchar gliding along the blueline and setting up Evgeni Malkin on the right side for the big one-timer. While we loved to watch that set-up, it was a play that became so predictable that many opponents had gotten good at positioning themselves to disrupt the pass and thwart the Penguins’ powerplay. Now the Penguins are finding success in a less predictable, much more mobile, umbrella style of powerplay that is starting to pay dividends. It was widely accepted that it would take time to adapt to a powerplay unit without Gonchar, but the Penguins seem to be quickly discovering the lethality that can be gained through mobility and unpredictability on the man advantage. Alex Goligoski has stepped firmly into the role of mobile, roving, puck carrying defenseman on the powerplay. While his style and skillset are quite different than Gonchar’s, they are very well suited to the new powerplay approach being employed by the Penguins. Goligoski has scored 5 of his 7-points (2 G, 3A) while mastering the man advantage.
Fourth, the Penguins have demonstrated early this season that they have the maturity and leadership within the roster to remain calm under pressure, despite the loss of Gonchar’s contributions in those areas. Of note, the team responded well to the early adversity of losing 3 of its first 4 games (including its first three games in the posh new Console Energy Center). It did so by buckling down, demanding accountability from each other, and persevering to reverse their early (mis)fortunes and win 5 of their last 6-games. They have turned a frustrating and potentially demoralizing start into a winning streak that currently stands at 4-games and counting. Nowhere was this maturity and leadership more evident than it was on the ice in Thursday night’s road game against the Nashville Predators in which the Penguins came from behind three times to tie the game and eventually win it in overtime.
Finally, while it goes without saying, we’ll say it anyways…..Evgeni Malkin no longer needs Sergei Gonchar as his mentor and guide. Malkin’s English has improved immensely, allowing him to easily communicate with his teammates, coaches, and the media. He now routinely takes interviews without the aid of an interpreter. His leadership growth and communiation abilities have resulted in his selection as team Assistant Captain.
There is a lot of hockey yet to be played. There are surely unknown challenges that lie ahead for the Penguins as the season unfolds. The good news is that the Penguins appear to have conquered the biggest challenge that faced them at the outset of the season, losing Sergei Gonchar and other key defensemen. Sergei Gonchar’s name is indelibly etched into the history of the Pittsburgh Penguins and his contributions to the team continue to be felt after his departure through the Penguins’ players whom he helped develop.