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Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Sergei Gonchar's mentoring pays off

By Pierre LeBrun

TORONTO -- When the Ottawa Senators shelled out $16.5 million over three years to Sergei Gonchar last July 1, they got a lot more in return than those three seasons.

The player himself may only be contracted for three years, but his teachings and influence on young blueliner Erik Karlsson, in particular, could have 10-plus years of impact.

Now there's your real investment. Of course you may wonder just how effective Gonchar, 36, might actually be near the end of this deal, but if he can do for Karlsson what he did for Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang in Pittsburgh, then the Senators can definitely consider money well spent.

When you see the puck-moving and passing abilities of Goligoski and Letang in Pittsburgh, you see how they benefited from being around Gonchar when they entered the league.

Now it's Karlsson's turn to try and suck up all that knowledge. Because if you aspire to be among the better puck-moving defensemen in the NHL, Gonchar arguably takes a backseat to only Nicklas Lidstrom.

"He's an experienced guy and he knows how to talk to people to make them understand what needs to be done," Karlsson, 20, told ESPN.com Tuesday after the pre-game skate at Air Canada Centre. "For me having him on the team, it's been great so far and I think it's going to be even better."

Professor Gonchar said it's not like he's sitting at home and wondering what lessons he should draw up next for his pupil. But once the puck drops, he's in constant dialogue with Karlsson.

"We're on the same power-play unit so sometimes you see things that can be done a little differently," Gonchar said. "We always talk and he's a great listener. It just happens naturally. I've been around a bit longer so you know maybe how certain things should be done. When you have a guy like Erik who has all the skills in the world and can do things, you can tell him something and he can do it. It was the same with those two [Goligoski and Letang]. It's a natural process."

Karlsson, still a work in progress but carrying an offensive skill-set that screams 50-point potential one day, wouldn't divulge specifics but said many tips from Gonchar have already come into play.

"It's a bunch of little things, in different situations he tells you if you do this or that you're going to have more success," Karlsson said. "I try doing what he says and it works."

Imagine that. The man with eight seasons of 50-plus points knows what he's talking about.

Best piece of advice Gonchar can give to a young, puck-moving blueliner?

"Sometimes they try and do too much," Gonchar said. "They have all the skills in the world and they try to create things sometimes where it's not necessary; like in the defensive zone, or on the blueline. When you're young you have to be more careful in choosing your moment. You have to do things at the right time and in the right situation. It's probably the toughest part -- making the right read. Sometimes you think you have more time than you have or the opposite. To learn to do things at the right time is something you learn. As a young guy you're not recognizing it right away. That's something that in my opinion stands out."

As Gonchar and I stood in the hallway outside the visitors, dressing room Tuesday morning, I couldn,t help but ask him just how it is he ended up in a different uniform this season. Of all the high-profile players that were headed for unrestricted free agency last season, he was the one guy I was sure would not leave where he was. He was a perfect fit in Pittsburgh, where he won a Stanley Cup in 2008, a mentor to Evgeni Malkin on and off the ice as well as the catalyst on the blueline. He fit like a glove there. And he agreed with me, he didn't think he was going to leave either.

"Yeah, I thought that until the last moment," Gonchar said. "Right up to July 1, I was hoping the deal would get done. Unfortunately it didn't happen. I thought everyone was happy, both sides, I was happy to be there and I thought they were happy with my performance. But sometimes that's just how life turns out."

Ottawa was willing to go three years on a deal. Pittsburgh was not. And that was that. Because Gonchar was over 35 when he signed his deal, you understand the Penguins' reluctance. His deal counts against the cap regardless of whether he's able to play all three years. That's the risk.

He wasn't the only one who didn't want to leave Pittsburgh.

"A lot of people don't recognize that when you change teams and cities it's not just you moving, it's your wife and kids," said Gonchar, who has two children. "My oldest kid had to change schools, leave her old friends behind, she was scared how it was going to be. It was the first time in her life for her [moving[. But when we got to Ottawa, everyone was so friendly and the city is so beautiful, that side was an easy adjustment. I was surprised how easy it was. My family is happy. Now we just have to win some games."

For the first time in his NHL career, after previous stops in Washington, Boston and Pittsburgh, Gonchar finds himself in hockey-mad Canada. That has certainly lived up to billing.

"Even probably more in Ottawa because it's really the only pro team, there's no other sports really," he said. "So besides the fact you're playing in Canada where hockey means so much, you're also playing in a city where there's nothing besides hockey. The people come up to us and you see how much it matters to them. They know the schedule, they tell you all the stats -- it's kind of crazy. But it's just the way it is."