Commentary

With Gonchar out for long haul, Penguins look at their blue-line options

Updated: September 30, 2008, 3:22 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

STOCKHOLM -- Having lost his top defenseman for four to six months, Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero was still able to look at the bright side Tuesday.

"Actually, it's not the worst-case scenario for me," Shero told reporters in the lobby of the team's Stockholm hotel. "My worst-case was that he would have been out for the entire season. We're going to be getting him back at some point, which is great news for us."

Sergei Gonchar, second in the NHL in points among defensemen the last two seasons, will have arthroscopic surgery Thursday on his dislocated left shoulder. But, as Shero points out, the Russian star should be back at least for the last month of the regular season and the playoffs.

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There was thought Gonchar could have tried to rehab the shoulder and come back in only six or seven weeks. But that carried the risk of still needing surgery anyway if the shoulder didn't respond, and then Gonchar would be at risk of being out for the start of the playoffs.

"This is the best, long term, for Sergei," said Shero.

Gonchar, who didn't accompany the team on the trip to Sweden, suffered the injury early in Pittsburgh's first preseason game against Tampa on Sept. 20, taking a borderline hit from Lightning tough guy David Koci.

"[Gonchar] was barely out there for one or two shifts. That's not easy at all," Penguins star and captain Sidney Crosby said.

The 34-year-old Gonchar means a ton to this team. He led the Penguins in ice time last season with more than 25 minutes a game and finished fourth in Norris Trophy voting for the league's top defenseman.

"Offensively, he's great, his skills and his points each year speak for themselves," said Crosby. "But defensively, I don't think he gets the credit. The amount of minutes he logs every night, he's not a big physical presence out there; but you ask a lot of guys around the league, they don't want to play against him. He's smart.

"He's a [Nicklas] Lidstrom-type defenseman. Lidstrom is not the most physical guy, but he's always in the right spot and I think Gonch is the same way. And that's what you lose when you lose a guy like that."

The Penguins are also without Ryan Whitney, their second-best offensive blueliner, until December as he recovers from offseason foot surgery. So, the Penguins open the regular season here Saturday against the Ottawa Senators with $9 million in defensemen salary on injured reserve.

Pittsburgh is well aware of the Cup finals hangover that stung Carolina, Edmonton, Ottawa and Anaheim over the past two seasons. All four teams struggled the season after reaching the NHL's championship finals, the Hurricanes and Oilers even missing the playoffs, while the Senators and Ducks were knocked out in the first round.

"We've all heard it and we've seen the teams that have trouble making the playoffs the next season," said Shero. "Our focus is on the first two games of the season. I think we have a real special group of kids. Last year, we went through a lot of adversity. It's going to be a little more difficult, let's be honest; but, at the same time, it's a good group of players.

"Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin are two of the best in the league. I think we have a chance. There's no doubt our coaches feel that and our players feel that."

The Penguins not only survived, but also thrived when Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury missed extensive periods of time with injuries last season. Now, they've got to do it again.

Second-year defenseman Kris Letang seems like the most likely candidate to take one of the power-play spots left open by Whitney and Gonchar, although veteran Darryl Sydor and AHL standout Alex Goligoski are also in the mix.

"They're going to have to step up, obviously," said Shero. "Certainly Kris has played at this level last year. Alex had a really good season in the American League last season, which I think was a good transition for him. But we're going to see. Time will tell. We're not going to put Alex in a situation where he's going to fail."

The 23-year-old Goligoski, a University of Minnesota product picked 61st overall in the 2004 NHL draft, had 38 points (10-28) and was a plus-15 in 70 games with Wilkes-Barre in the AHL last season -- his first pro campaign.

"He's got a good first pass," said Crosby. "He's confident back there; he's played there a lot. He's a good skater. He's got all the tools and he's going to get used to playing with whoever it is that's out there and get more comfortable. With time, he's just going to get better."

But Shero said the team would not rush his development just because Gonchar and Whitney are out.

"We'll give Alex some time," said Shero. "I don't want to put any undue pressure on him at this stage. If he can handle it, he can handle it. And if he can't, we'll make the best decision for the team and for Alex, long term. We'll see, he's done a good job so far."

He'll get another test Thursday night when the Penguins play Jokerit in Helsinki. Malkin will likely play one of the points on the power play, which he's already done several times in the past.

"Actually, before the injury to Sergei, [Malkin] stated that he wanted to play back there," said Shero. "It gives us a threat back there. He can really shoot the puck. So we're fortunate to have a luxury like that."

Along with Sydor, Letang and Goligoski, Brooks Orpik, Hal Gill, Mark Eaton and Rob Scuderi fill out what was once a deep group. Now, the Penguins are hoping those seven defensemen can stay healthy.

"We're going to need all hands on deck with the seven that we have right now," said Shero.

Shero said he's not looking to make a trade for a blueliner at this point, although obviously that could change.

"No, I'm sure we'll get calls," said Shero. "But right now, we're going to go with our group here. We'll see how we do. We have confidence in the group we have, where some guys will step up. I really think at some point in the next two to three months, we'll get Whitney back, and after that, we'll get Gonchar back.

"It was no different last year with the injuries we saw. Other guys had to step up and play better."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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