Pens should make call on Gonchar now

| Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sergei Gonchar is the Penguins' best defenseman, and would be again next season, too.

However, he shouldn't be a Penguin after July 1, and general manager Ray Shero should set a deadline of Friday to resolve Gonchar's future with the franchise he helped win the Stanley Cup in 2009.

The way of life in this salary-cap era NHL is for franchises to make difficult decisions. The situation with Gonchar is exactly that. He was one of the best players at his position over the time of his previous contract, an expert power-play quarterback and a quiet but respected leader for the Penguins.

However, Gonchar is 36. He has missed 77 games the past two regular seasons. All indications are that he desires a deal of at least three years and $5 million annually, and he has not publicly expressed a willingness to give the Penguins a so-called "hometown discount" in either reduced years or salary.

He is under no obligation to provide them a discount, either. One of seven Penguins slated to test the free-agent market on July 1, he holds the cards in negotiations — especially if his agent, JP Barry, believes a lucrative deal is forthcoming from another team.

Barry and Shero have been negotiating a potential new contract for Gonchar since the weekend. If a deal hasn't been reached by Round 1 of the NHL entry draft, Shero needs to move on and seek a trade.

He'll need Gonchar's approval because of a no-trade clause, but the Penguins can't lose Gonchar without compensation. They should already be working with clubs that are willing to trade an early-round pick for the rights to negotiate with Gonchar before July 1.

They can live without him for these reasons:

• A three-year deal at $5 million annually will considerably hurt the Penguins' chances of finding cap space if and when they decide upon a long-term wing for centers Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. That wing probably won't come from this free-agent class that is weak at the position, but the classes of 2011 and 2012 also need to be considered.

• Defenseman Kris Letang should flourish with added responsibility in Gonchar's absence. His penchant for playing better in the playoffs is an indication he thrives in pressure situations, and the pressure will be on him in Gonchar's absence. Also, defenseman Alex Goligoski has been trained to run a power play. He needs the chance.

• The free-agent market will be plentiful with quality defensemen even if Daniel Hamhuis signs with the Flyers, who acquired his rights from Nashville over the weekend. Gonchar wouldn't be the Penguins' best deal for their limited salary-cap coin.

• Malkin should be able to regain his status among the game's true superstars even if his best friend, Gonchar, is no longer a teammate. Malkin will be 24 next month. He is a former scoring champion, MVP finalist and playoff MVP. He doesn't need Gonchar to serve as a warm blanket. He might actually blossom without it.

• If Gonchar isn't willing to give the Penguins a discount, he simply doesn't fit into the plan. Remember what Shero said in July 2008 after Malkin followed Crosby's lead from the previous year by taking less than market value. "I'm interested in players that want to be here," Shero said. Brooks Orpik and Jordan Staal also took less to stay. Ryan Malone wasn't willing. That was his choice. Left wing Matt Cooke made his late Monday and agreed to a three-year deal worth $5.4 million total. Players have a choice, and so does Gonchar.

Gonchar has been great for the Penguins. Sometimes, though, it's time to go. That time is approaching, and the Penguins cannot allow loyalty to trump smart hockey decisions.

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