Sergei Gonchar: The $5 Million Man

Improving the defense is a critical piece in building a championship roster, but is jettisoning the veteran right now really the best available option? What, exactly, do the Stars have in Sergei Gonchar, and how is he best utilized as an asset moving forward?

Nothing says summer doldrums like a good pitchfork article. So let’s rouse the rabble, pick some poor, underperforming sap, and single him out for an old-fashioned armchair shellacking. Who, you ask? How about Sergei Gonchar? The ramblin’ Russian rode into town last season, scored exactly two more goals than you or I, and did very little to displace Sergei Zubov as Dallas’ favorite Russian.

Full disclosure: I actually didn’t hate the move at the time. During the lockout-shortened 2012/2013 season, Dallas had struggled mightily on the powerplay (17% / 18th in the league). Gonchar, meanwhile, was fresh from finishing second (SECOND!) in scoring on a plucky Ottawa playoff squad (3g 24a 27pts). He put up six more points during Ottawa’s 10 game post-season run. Do not forget that this was a pre-Seguin Dallas squad in desperate need of offense, and desperate to re-establish itself as an actual NHL destination.

There were non-scoring reasons to make the deal as well. It wasn’t like the guy played a robust physical game, nor did he carry a notable history of injuries. Gonchar actually averaged 67 games played over the three full seasons preceding the lockout, and another 45 that year. Dallas had a shiny new Russian draftee, and success in their pocket from season one of Ray Whitney’s deal. For me, the entire situation screamed "why not?" or more ominously, "what’s the worst that could happen?"

On the bright side, at least he answered the second question. Last season, Sergei Gonchar was, by nearly every measure, the biggest disappointment on the Stars’ blueline, and possibly on the entire team (hi Erik Cole!). There were glaring turnovers, meagre point totals, and an overwhelming sense of uncertainty whenever he took the ice. I find it significant that Gonchar averaged more than 18 minutes of ice-time during the season’s first month, and less than 13 during the playoffs. That’s a gruesome number for a player making $5 million next season.

Clearly, the only answer is to trade the bum! Dallas needs a puck mover, and as some blogger astutely pointed out, a right-hander would be ideal. Were this NHL 2014, notable righties like Shea Weber, Erik Karlsson, or PK Subban might be options, as would the St. Louis Blues’ duo of Alex Pietrangelo or Kevin Shattenkirk. Realistically, they’re out of Dallas’ range, which leaves us with candidates the likes of Matt Niskanen, Marek Zidlicky, John Carlson, or as one of our commentors mentioned, Mike Green.

We’re all adults here, plus he signed a stupid contract, so let’s cross Matt "I’m A Really Good Player When Sergei Zubov, Sidney Crosby, or Evgeni Malkin Cover My Flaws" Niskaken off, and take a look at the rest of the list. Zidlicky (42 pts), Green (38 pts), Carlson (37 pts). Not bad, right? Certainly upgrades over what’s left of Sergei Gonchar. Zidlicky brings consistency, Carlson is only 24, and Green once got Norris Trophy votes. Wasn’t that fun? If life were as simple as a straight swap, any of the three (or a similar player) would live up to expectations, and instantly upgrade the Dallas roster. Too bad we live in the real world.

Zidlicky might be the best candidate. The 37 year old carries a cap hit of $3 million through the end of next season, and put up his points on a limited New Jersey Devils team last season. Maybe Dallas gambles he’s got one more year in the tank, and would at least stay steady in a better environment. Sounds an awful lot like the guy he’s replacing. Green is 28, which is good, and also signed through the end of next season. Unfortunately, he carries an even more unsightly $6 million cap hit, and has been an injury-reduced shadow of himself since 2009/2010. Carlson has youth on his side, and has been the mark of consistency since entering the league full time in 2010, averaging 32 points per season, but he’s signed through 2017/2018. He also hasn’t exceeded 37 points in any season. Nill and Co would need to be really sure he’s the guy.

There’s also the small issue of fitting a new part onto the Dallas roster. A trade requires two sides, and the Dallas side will almost certainly need to include an outbound Gonchar. Jim Nill tried that earlier in the summer, and discovered the market for 40 year-old defensemen with $5 million cap hits coming off disastrous seasons is fairly bare. So long as we’re talking about getting quality back, Nill will be hamstrung by an inability to eat too much of Gonchar’s salary. Dallas sits just over $63 million in cap-counting salary next season (thanks CapGeek!), or $6 million under the $69 million ceiling. That’s without re-signing Brenden Dillon and Cody Eakin, both deals sort of have to happen.

Dallas would need to do some serious work to make a deal appealing to any partner. If you’re Washington, doesn’t it make more sense to gamble on Mike Green than on Sergei Gonchar, and what kind of package are you going to demand to send promising, young, cost-controlled Carlson the other way? If you’re New Jersey, is there any scenario in which you think having Gonchar on your team is going to exceed what you’ll get with Zidlicky at several million less? Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, Cameron Gaunce, Brendan Ranford, these are the sorts of players another team is going to ask for in exchange for solving Dallas’ tire-fire defensive problem. How much is being rid of Gonchar really worth?

I would argue a trade makes even less sense from the Dallas Stars’ perspective. Let’s not forget Gonchar is in the final year of his deal, as is Erik Cole, as is Shawn Horcoff. That’s $15 million in cap relief the Stars can look forward to without impacting their roster in any meaningful way. That space could be pretty useful if Jason Spezza, an expiring deal in his own right, plays well, or in next year’s FA market.

So a trade is out, another common refrain is to call someone up. Oleksiak got a look at the start of last season, Nemeth at the end. Both project to play big roles down the line, maybe this season is as good as any to take the plunge. Thing is, neither solves the Zoolander Problem, and neither has shown to be particularly offensive at this point (Nemeth’s amazing Calder Cup winner aside). They also each get to play huge, important minutes on a very good AHL squad. A long-term, Detroit-educated general manager might well value that experience over frantic, bottom pairing minutes with the big squad.

Righty John Klingberg, then. The sweet Swede projects to be a puck moving NHL mainstay. Projects. Right now he’s a 22 year old with exactly 3 games of AHL experience under his belt. As great as it would be to see him step into training camp and play, I think a bit of caution is in everybody’s best interest. Let him learn to be a defending champion before he has to be The Solution on defense. Weren’t we all excited about Ivan Vishnevskiy once upon a time?

I keep coming back to Gonchar’s contract. One year left. It’s become a sort of mantra for me when considering the Stars’ roster. Standing still means nobody gets rushed. If a defensman comes out of camp ready, fine. If someone stands out over the first half of the AHL season, wonderful. Why not take a breath and see if Connauton can soak up a few more minutes, if Dillon continues to stride forward, or even if Gonchar regains some semblance of his previous form? Thirteen minutes a night isn’t exactly difficult to cover.

I cannot deny being rid of Sergei Gonchar is a pleasant thought. For a team closer to true contention, a prospect-laden salary dump might even make sense. That’s just not Dallas, not right now. The Stars’ bottom line is that the possibility of even marginal improvement, the lack of NHL-ready internal options, and Gonchar’s expiring deal make standing pat the best possible option.