The positives were easy to spot. He was a 6-foot-2, 210-pound defenseman with a slap shot that frightened goaltenders. He had 26 goals and 59 points to lead all NHL blueliners last season.
And yet there were as many negatives to Sergei Gonchar as there were positives. He was just as likely to make a mistake to allow a goal as he was to score one. He finished last season minus-1. Yes, he was among the most talented offensive defensemen in history but he couldn’t be trusted in his own end.
In training camp last fall, assistant coach and former Norris Trophy winner Randy Carlyle started pulling Gonchar aside for little chats before or after practice. Carlyle, an excellent teacher, would demonstrate a few things, Gonchar would nod, try them himself and they’d part.
If Carlyle is a good teacher, Gonchar proved to be the perfect pupil. He is still among the top 10 defensemen in scoring but his goal total (five) is slightly off. But more importantly, he is among the league-leaders as far as defensive rating is concerned, plus-16. And, he is by far the leader in ice time, averaging 27 minutes a game, a real test of where a player stands on his team.
And when it really counts, at the end of a game when the Caps are fighting to protect a slim lead, Gonchar will now be found on the ice, not watching from the bench.
“We asked him if he could become more of a complete defenseman in terms of making better decisions joining the rush and looking after his end first,” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “He bought into it immediately. I can’t say enough good things about him. It takes the ultimate player to do that, put the team first, and we tell him that every day, that he’s making the Caps a better team.”
Carlyle said in the past Gonchar had been a better two-way player “but where did it go? We asked him if he wanted to be the highest-scoring defenseman in the league or did he want to help his team win a championship. It wasn’t a hard sell.”
The coaches are pleased with the result, but Gonchar is beside himself and can’t help but smile as he talks about the transition.
“I, ah, had this reputation that everybody was saying ‘He can only play offense,’ so I’m trying to prove to them and myself I can do both,” the defender said. “Randy showed me a lot of things, some little tricks I didn’t know and obviously it’s been a big help. The coach seems to trust me now, in both ends.”
Said Cassidy: “I play him against anybody. His on-ice awareness is fantastic. You’d love to see him be mean he is a big guy but that’s just not his personality. We’re completely satisfied. We just put him out there, he’s done everything we’ve asked, we don’t even worry about him.”
He is still getting his chances, which shows there is nothing wrong with the old offensive instincts. His goal production is down slightly, but that’s probably because of the better, team orientated decision making.
“I feel like I’m helping the team more now,” Gonchar said. “I never felt this good the last couple years because usually when we were up one, two goals, I was sitting on the bench, frustrated. Now I’m playing all 60 minutes. It feels great.”
Notes The Portland (Maine) coach was incorrectly identified in yesterday’s editions. He is Tim Army Defenseman Calle Johansson today will tie Kelly Miller’s long-standing mark for most games played by a Cap, 940. Barring injury, he will break Miller’s record Friday at home against Columbus.
Cassidy yesterday called Johansson “the ultimate professional. He always makes team-first decisions. He’s a good, hard-working guy, he never complains. I don’t have one issue with Calle Johansson. Good leader. And he bleeds Capitals. He’s been here a while and it shows. He wants the Capitals to have success before it’s over for him.”