PITTSBURGH — Sergei Gonchar's first season in this city was a miserable one.
Signed after the lockout to a five-year, $25 million contract in 2005, Gonchar was the marquee free agent addition for a team with lofty expectations. He struggled with rule changes, racked up penalty minutes with much greater proficiency than points and became Public Enemy No. 1 as the Penguins floundered.
"Obviously when you come over to a new team, you are hoping to have a good year, but I didn't start well," Gonchar said. "It was a slow start, and it wasn't a good experience in the beginning. Things change, and we were able to turn things around. After that I was feeling OK."
Things did change for Gonchar. He adapted to the new rules and cut down his time spent in the penalty box. His 67 and 65 points the past two seasons have cemented his place among the top offensive rearguards in the league, but the biggest transformation came at the other end of the ice.
Throughout his 10 years with the Washington Capitals, Gonchar was considered an offensive defenseman with deficiencies in his own end. That first year in Pittsburgh did nothing to dispel the notion. But Gonchar's defense was better last season, and this year he has found a new level.
"I would say I was working on it," Gonchar said. "I would say I wasn't a good defensive defenseman, but maybe I wasn't as bad as people think. Slowly I've been working on it, and I think I'm going in the right direction with the system we have here, and I think I am making good progress on it."
Added Pittsburgh defenseman Ryan Whitney: "I think he's grown up as a player. You improve as you get older, especially as a defenseman. I don't think you hit your prime until at least 30, 31 [years old]. He's just past that now [at 34], but he is a great player. When he was in Washington and he was 25, 26 years old, he really wasn't developed all the way. Now he is just an amazing player."
Playing with rugged defenseman Brooks Orpik as part of the Penguins' top pairing, Gonchar is matched up against the opposing team's top forwards on a nightly basis. With his Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Detroit Red Wings, his assignment is to contain one of the top lines in the sport — Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom.
This season Gonchar has been up to the task on most nights. He averaged nearly 26 minutes a night during the regular season and 25 in the playoffs. His 11 points in this postseason are tied for second among defensemen.
It took more than a half a season for him to get comfortable, but Gonchar has become a prototypical defenseman for the "new NHL."
"He's everything," Whitney said. "He moves the puck. He carries the power play. He works the [penalty kill]. He does it all. He's on in the last minute no matter if we are winning or losing. He's just a real leader of this team."
Gonchar, a top two-way defenseman and a leader? Believe it. Not only does the label fit, but a list of the top all-around defenseman in the NHL wouldn't be more than five or six-deep before Gonchar's name appeared. Maybe not even that far.
"I think around the league, the people who don't see him very much think he is just a power-play or offensive defenseman, but looking at some of the guys who are nominated for the Norris [Trophy] it is hard to not see his name in there the way he's played this year," Orpik said.
Part of what has made Gonchar a leader for this team is his ongoing mentorship of countryman Evgeni Malkin. Not only is he the 21-year-old superstar's landlord, but he also has helped him acclimate to a new culture and a new league.
He is also someone for the team's younger defensemen like Whitney and Kris Letang to look up to. Whitney, 25, and Letang, 21, are puck-moving, offensive defensemen with work left to do in their own end. The Penguins hope someday they grow up to be like Gonchar.
"That's my goal. He's gone through development as a player — good times and bad," Whitney said. "But look at him now. He's a superstar defenseman, and it is great that we have him."