Will Sergei Gonchar Crack The Russian Olympic Roster?

Martin Rose

The veteran defender has struggled this season, but could be called upon for one last shot at gold.

When Sergei Gonchar signed a two-year, $10 million dollar contract with the Dallas Stars this summer, one of the reasons why he did it was because he still had some fight left in him.

He had offers to bolt to the KHL and enjoy fading away into a lucrative retirement, but the 39 year-old wanted to stay in the NHL and continue to compete against the world's best competition.

It would have been easy, and understandable, for Gonchar to call it quits considering the impressive career that he has had: 1000 NHL games, more than 700 points, a Stanley Cup ring, and five All-Star Game appearances.

But there's one major accomplishment that has eluded Gonchar up until this point in his career: international gold.

Over a span of nearly two decades, Gonchar has represented his home nation of Russia in 52 international games split up between the Olympics, the World Championships, the World Cup Of Hockey and the World Junior Championships, but he's never won any gold. The closest he's come is winning silver at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano.

Now, with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi fast approaching, Gonchar could be getting himself ready for one last shot.

Upon first impression, it's hard to imagine Gonchar getting that chance, considering how painfully slowly he's started this season: zero goals, three assists and a -5 in 20 games played so far. Horrible turnover after horrible turnover led to Gonchar being dropped from the top defensive pairing with Alex Goligoski all the way down to the 3rd pairing with Jordie Benn, which is not ideally where you'd want to put a player making $5 million a season.

But Gonchar, a known slow-starter, has recently begun to regain his form, with two assists and a +1 rating in his last five games. Gonchar will never be the elite offensive defenceman that he was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but considering he put up 27 points in 45 games for the Ottawa Senators last season, identical point totals to Alex Goligoski, it's not too far of a stretch to assume that there is still some gas left in the tank.

Despite his slow start, Gonchar's chances of making the roster of the host Russians are bolstered by a few factors.

The first, as touched on already, is his international experience. No other Russian defencemen currently playing can match Gonchar's four trips to the Olympics.

The second is the overall lack of talented Russian defencemen. When checking out Russian's 35-man Olympic orientation invites from this summer, there are only seven NHL defenceman on that list: Gonchar, Andrei Markov, Slava Voynov, Fedor Tyutin, Alexei Emelin, Anton Volchenkov and Nikita Nikitin. That's not exactly a star-studded list. Gonchar might find himself on the team simply because there aren't very many other good options.

Third is the bigger ice size of international rinks. Gonchar's foot speed is, understandably, lacking for a player of his age, and so far this season it has caused some failed breakouts out of the Stars' defensive end that had fans all across Texas yelling at their TVs. But you can't deny that Gonchar can still send hard, tape-to-tape passes like he used to. With more time and space on international ice, Gonchar could have an easier time sending breakout passes from his own zone, making him a potentially dangerous weapon for the Russian attack.

With a few more months to go before the Games, rosters for all the competing nations are still very much up in the air, something that probably isn't lost on Gonchar. If he wants to make the cut he'll have to continue to keep his on-ice play trending in the right direction, which will be something that's needed by the defensively-challenged Russian team, and needed even moreso by the Stars.

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