Gonchar, the NHL's top goal-scoring defenseman over the last six seasons, agreed Wednesday to a $25 million, five-year contract -- the Penguins' first big-ticket signing in eight years.
With No. 1 draft pick Sidney Crosby on the way, an NHL salary cap in place and the twice-bankrupt franchise now on better financial footing, general manager Craig Patrick predicted 10 days ago the Penguins would be active in free agency.
Gonchar would seem to be a perfect fit for a team that plans to rebuild what once was the NHL's highest-scoring offense now that the league plans to enforce obstruction rules and encourage offense.
Known for his passing skills and hard slap shot, Gonchar had 148 goals and 277 assists in 669 career games. Despite having a subpar 2003-04 season -- he had a career-low 11 goals in 71 games -- he led NHL defensemen with 47 assists. He was the first Russian-born defensemen to score 20 goals in a season, netting 21 with Washington in 1998-99.
"Sergei is an outstanding defenseman with excellent offensive skills, and he will be a tremendous asset to the Penguins organization," Patrick said of the three-time All-Star.
New Jersey's Scott Niedermayer was considered to be the top defensemen on the market, and he is expected to command a salary between $6 million and $7 million. Gonchar was thought to be on the next level, on par with or slightly above Adam Foote -- who signed a three-year, $13.8 million deal with Columbus -- and Adrian Aucoin, who agreed to a four-year pact with Chicago worth $16 million.
"Sergei had interest from numerous clubs over the past two days. The market for defensemen accelerated very quickly Monday night and all day Tuesday," J.P. Barry, Gonchar's agent, said Wednesday. "We had several teams interested, but from a hockey perspective Pittsburgh was clearly the best fit for Sergei."
Gonchar, long a Penguins antagonist while with Washington, has 113 goals and 213 assists since the 1998-99 season; Rob Blake has the second most goals among defensemen over that span with 95. After nine seasons in Washington, Gonchar was dealt to the Bruins late in the 2003-04 season and was offered a four-year contract by Boston last month. He had won a $5.5 million arbitration award for the 2004-05 season, which wasn't played due to the NHL lockout. He made $3.65 million in 2003-04.
With Crosby's arrival pumping up ticket sales -- the Penguins have sold thousands of season tickets since winning the draft lottery July 22 -- and restoring interest in a team that has missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, the team felt it could afford to re-enter the free agent marketplace.
Since signing former NHL scoring champion Jaromir Jagr to a $38 million contract extension in 1998, the team went into bankruptcy, then spent most of three seasons discarding players it could no longer afford, including Jagr, Alex Kovalev, Martin Straka, Robert Lang and Darius Kasparaitis.
Owner-player Mario Lemieux, who bought the team after the bankruptcy filing, also is selling the franchise, to San Jose-based businessman William "Boots" Del Biaggio -- a move that should also improve the struggling team's finances.
The Penguins reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2000-01 after Hall of Famer Lemieux unexpectedly ended a 44-month retirement but has failed to reach the playoffs since, ending a run that saw them advance to every postseason from 1991-2001. The Penguins lost 18 consecutive games and had the league's worst record (23-47-8) in 2003-04.
Coincidentally, Gonchar left the Capitals during a Penguins-like burst of salary dumping that included the departures of Jagr and Lang, who had come to the Capitals after Pittsburgh began downsizing its payroll, and team career scoring leader Peter Bondra.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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