by PuckStopsHere on 04/27/09 at 02:03 AM ET
The Pittsburgh Penguins are defending Stanley Cup finalists. Despite that they had a slow start this season that had them out of the playoff race. The slow start even led to them firing their coach. These problems occurred despite having Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in their line-up. Malkin was leading the NHL in points and Crosby was not too far behind him. The problems were largely tied to a lack of an elite defenceman and poor goal prevention. They were solved when Sergei Gonchar returned from a shoulder injury.
Gonchar only played 25 games for the Penguins this season, but it was in those games that Pittsburgh climbed back up to serious contention. Gonchar continued his top play into the playoffs scoring five points in six games. He scored the series winning goal against the Philadelphia Flyers,
Sergei Gonchar has long been known as a top offensive defenceman. He had a streak of seven straight fifty or more point seasons from defence (clearing 60 in the final three seasons) that was snapped by his injuries this season. During that streak his defensive play was continually improving. He is now one of the better defensive defenceman in hockey as well as being a top offensive defenceman.
Gonchar is not the best player on the Penguins. However, this season he has been the player who upon being added to the team gave them a critical mass of top players. This critical mass of players is enough to give the Penguins a winning core. Without it, they struggled. This is a common scenario. A team with enough good players will win, but if you subtract one of two of them they won’t. It has led to the “missing piece” theory. If only the team had a certain kind of player they would win. This idea is backwards engineered by fans when they see a player added to a roster to give them a critical mass of good players and assume he must have been the missing piece. In reality there is no missing piece - beyond the idea that a struggling team needs more good players. A team that chases that gritty left winger and then that puck moving defenceman etc. as missing pieces is a team that is moving backwards. They overpay for perceived missing pieces and never make progress.
Pittsburgh’s success has come when they have had a critical mass of talented players. Sergei Gonchar’s return from injury is the player who gave it to them. That is not to say he was the “missing piece”. Another top player arriving on the Penguins without disrupting the core would have likely had the same effect.
We can see how Sergei Gonchar (at least when healthy) has become one of the top defencemen in hockey from his results with Pittsburgh. He has been the key to explaining their rises and falls this season. He is one of the best defencemen in the game.
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