As the Dallas Stars wrapped up the lockout-shortened 2013 season with another soft whimper of a finish, there was at least one question everyone had heading into the offseason - how, exactly, were the Stars going to overhaul their blueline?
After all, if there was one glaring weakness to the Stars last season, it was the play in their own end of the ice. But with a fairly weak free agent market for defensemen, there also weren't many options for a complete overhaul.
And while the Stars didn't overhaul the defense, they certainly added a very significant piece to the back end in defenseman Sergei Gonchar.
Gonchar, a 39-year-old Russian who has played in more than 1,100 NHL games, was acquired by Dallas before he would have actually hit the free agent market this summer. The Stars sent a conditional sixth-round draft pick to the Ottawa Senators for the rights to negotiate with Gonchar and quickly signed him to a two-year deal worth $5 million per season. The contract also has a limited no-trade clause which allows Gonchar to be traded from January 2015 to the 2015 trade deadline.
It was one of Jim Nill's first big moves as Stars general manager, and adding a player like Gonchar is no small feat. High-end NHL defensemen are extremely valuable, even when they get on the back end of their careers.
Of course, it is a little bit of a risk signing a veteran player to a big money, multi-year deal. Gonchar had a bit of resurgance with the Senators last year with 27 points in 45 games with a plus-4 rating and six points in 10 playoff games. But his previous two years with the Senators weren't quite as prolific. He put up 27 points in each season in 67 and 74 games with a minus-15 and a minus-4 rating, respectively.
So will Gonchar be the all-around defensive force he was in the lockout-shortened season, or will he be more of an offensive force but defensive liability? Only time will tell there. For their part, the Stars have used him mostly with Alex Goligoski in the preseason, a pairing that would indicate a more offensive look. If I had to guess, Goligoski and Gonchar will see a lot of offensive zone face offs at the beginning of the season while the pairing of Brenden Dillon and Stephane Robidas takes some of the harder defensive-oriented shifts.
Gonchar and Goligoski are also the likely suspects for the power play units, though not together. The Stars have featured two four-forward looks on the power play with Gonchar or Goligoski as the lone defenseman present. While this could lead to some shorthanded looks - and indeed, the St. Louis Blues seemed to exploit this a bit in the preseason games - it can also maximize the puck-moving potential of both men.
So while Gonchar was not brought onboard to directly shore up the Stars defense in its own end, he can likely help solve the problem through his puck-moving ability.
At times, the Stars would get hemmed in their own zone for extended periods of time as a direct result of a poor outlet pass that got intercepted in neutral or just inside the blue line. When Gonchar is on the ice, that should be less of a problem. He is reknown for his outlet passing, and his ability to move the puck out of trouble usually makes up for his general lack of physicality.
In a sense, he's a very Zubovian player. I don't say that lightly either - Sergei Zubov is my favorite Dallas Stars player of all time. Gonchar isn't quite the offensive force that Zubov was (though his .66 points per game to Zubov's .72 is certainly nothing to sneeze at), and he takes far more penalties for a variety of reasons. But his strengths and weaknesses are in the same ballpark - a cerebral defenseman with great offensive instinct who can get flak for not playing physical enough from those who look for that thing among the D.
He certainly won't be Zubov - that's too high a standard to hold any player to, even a borderline future Hall of Famer like Gonchar. But he will bring that intellectual offensive element back to a Stars defense that has desperately needed it ever since Zubov and his wonky hip left for the KHL.
You do also worry a bit about injuries with any 39-year-old player, though his history is pretty clear on that end. You worry about legs slowing down that final hair where it makes a big difference in his game. That's the type of risk with any great player near the end of his career.
But think of it this way - from the end of last season, the Stars essentially replaced Philip Larsen with Sergei Gonchar. That's an upgrade any way you look at it. Just how big of an upgrade it is will determine how much better the Stars blueline is as a whole.