Sergei Gonchar opts to test free-agent market

| Thursday, July 1, 2010

The odds of defenseman Sergei Gonchar remaining with the Penguins appear to be slim.

As of late Wednesday, Penguins general manager Ray Shero and agent JP Barry had not agreed on a new contract for Gonchar, the Penguins' top defenseman of the past five years who will likely test the NHL free-agent market that opens today at noon.

"No movement," Barry said via text message, referring to the three-year deal he seeks for Gonchar, 36.

The Penguins prefer a two-year term at no more than his previous $5 million annual salary, and Barry said last week a two-year deal would need to include an average annual salary raise.

Gonchar will be among the most sought after free agents in a weak market — as will Dan Hamhuis, whose conversations with Shero stretched into last night.

The Penguins acquired Hamhuis, 27, last Friday at the NHL Entry Draft for a 2011 third-round pick from Philadelphia. However, it is not known if Shero and Hamhuis have discussed contract length or salary, as Shero via e-mail declined to elaborate on their interaction yesterday beyond calling it a "discussion."

Hamhuis' agent, Wade Arnott, said via text message that reports his client had targeted playing for a Canadian team, preferably near his native British Columbia, are "untrue."

"Dan remains very open-minded with respect to playing in the East versus the West or Canada versus the United States," Arnott said.

The Penguins had targeted retaining Gonchar and adding Hamhuis as the cornerstone pieces of an offseason plan to upgrading their defense.

In the likelihood that neither player has signed by noon, they will turn their attention to playoff regulars from last season — Mark Eaton and Jordan Leopold. Shero has kept open lines of communication with both defensemen during his discussions with camps for Gonchar and Hamhuis.

Veteran right wing Bill Guerin wants to play one more NHL season and he wants to play it with the Penguins, but as of late yesterday he was resigned to testing the market.

"I don't know what they are thinking or doing," Guerin said via e-mail.

Shero's policy is not to divulge details of negotiations. However, he has never ruled out retaining a player who tested the market - though very few Penguins to become unrestricted free agents have returned. Defenseman Brooks Orpik was a notable exception in July 2008.

The Penguins possessed the rights of eight players slated for free agency, and they'll turn their attention to other clubs' unrestricted players at noon in the event that Gonchar and Hamhuis haven't re-signed.

Kurtis Foster, 28, scored eight goals and recorded 42 points last season - a career high, and the most of any free-agent defenseman other than Gonchar. He counted as a $600,000 cap hit for Tampa Bay.

With ability to work the power play and a big shot, Foster fits the mold of a younger and cheaper alternative to help offset the offensive loss of Gonchar, who averaged 13 goals and 60 points in the equivalent of four seasons' worth of games with the Penguins.

Replacing some of the defensive qualities that Hamhuis would bring — shot-blocking, sound own-zone instincts and a decent breakout pass — could be Zbynek Michalek, 27. As of yesterday he was reportedly working toward an agreement to remain with the Phoenix Coyotes, but he would fit with the Penguins if on the market.

Michalek counted for a $1.5 million cap hit last season, and as a projected top-four defenseman he is also projected to double that cost.

Working in the Penguins' favor would be the recent history between Shero and his agent, Allan Walsh. Present and past Penguins represented by Walsh are goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and wingers Petr Sykora, Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan.

The Penguins are committed to spending up to the $59.4 million salary cap next season. They project about $11 million in available space.

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