Rob Rossi: Full-time Sergei Gonchar is a big-time win for Penguins
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin really are lucky.
They're lucky Sergei Gonchar is too good to be true.
Gonchar has agreed to join Mike Sullivan's coaching staff with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The addition of Gonchar is a considerable coup for Sullivan, who had parted with two holdovers from former coach Mike Johnston's staff. But the departures of former top assistant Rick Tocchet and previous goalie coach Mike Bales likely will be offset by bringing Gonchar into the full-time fold.
Continued mentoring of Penguins defensemen, whether those defensemen are Kris Letang or Olli Maatta, will considerably ease the transition of Mike Buckley as Bales' replacement.
An elite puck-moving defenseman as a player, Gonchar was expert at adapting to any coach's system and often overlooked for his sound own-zone defending. He was a legitimate No. 1 defenseman for over a decade in the NHL.
To hear the likes of Letang and Maatta tell it, Gonchar has proven second-to-none when it comes to teaching the art of defense at the highest level of hockey. If a Norris Trophy-caliber defender such as Letang can still learn something from Gonchar, think how still-developing defensemen such as Maatta, Justin Schultz and Brian Dumoulin will benefit from working with him daily.
When finished with that thought, give some to how continued progression by the likes of Maatta, Schultz and Dumoulin will make life easier on Matt Murray in the Penguins' new franchise goalie's first season as the go-to guy between the pipes. (Or, maybe consider the need for better own-zone performance by the Penguins' defensemen in games that will be played by backup Antti Niemi, who is no Marc-Andre Fleury at this point in their respective careers.)
Really, though, Gonchar making the Penguins a better defensive club should surprise nobody. He started doing that the day he arrived in Pittsburgh as a free agent after the 2004-05 lockout.
However, what he started doing in Year 1 of the Crosby/Malkin era is what the Penguins must believe he can do in Year 12.
Gonchar commands respect. He did as a player. He did as a part-time coach.
He must as a full-time assistant for Sullivan. The transition from respected former teammate to respected assistant coach is one of the most difficult any professional athlete can attempt.
Gonchar has never been just any professional athlete. His rise to elite stature had as much to do with how he carried himself as how he played.
A tireless worker who gave respect to anybody from any walk of life, Gonchar held players accountable simply with his conduct. By caring about players as people, Gonchar kept open the lines of communication with players of all types.
So for everybody freaking out about who could possibly “deal” with winger Phil Kessel in the absence of Tocchet... uh, go ahead and take deep breath.
The world as we've known it — with Kessel contributing significantly to the Penguins' rule over hockey — isn't going to change.
Kessel will be even better with Gonchar around to impress upon him the effort required for maintaining a higher level of hockey later into a hockey-playing life. Gonchar will show him the way, lead by example for the benefit of Kessel.
Phil Kessel is a two-time Stanley Cup champion... who is going to love Gonchar.
Malkin has called Gonchar one of his best friends. Crosby has called Gonchar one of his great teammates. Schultz has called Gonchar one of hockey's outstanding tutors. General manager Jim Rutherford has called Gonchar one of hockey's best people.
Gonchar had no plans to call Pittsburgh's his full-time home again, which will only add to the considerable weight he carries inside the Penguins' dressing room. Nothing against the city, but his family is firmly rooted in Dallas, and he did not fancy the trials that come with traveling as an assistant coach.
But Gonchar has a way of doing right by Crosby and Malkin. With him, they are at their best, and there has to be something to the Penguins winning 16 of 19 playoff series with Gonchar serving the franchise in some capacity.
That math is no more a coincidence than was the noticeable calm that returned to the performances of Crosby and Malkin right around September 2015.
The Penguins' franchise centers had wanted Gonchar to be part of the Penguins in some capacity again after his failed bid to make the squad in training camp two years ago. He planned a quieter transition into retirement, but ended up accepting an offer from Rutherford for a job he did not need.
He has now gone and done it again.
Crosby, Malkin and the Penguins really are lucky that Sergei Gonchar is too good to be true.
Rob Rossi is sports editor at upgruv .