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Blueliners in the News

June 10, 2013

As expected – once we were a couple of games into the conference finals, anyway – we’re looking at a Boston-Chicago Stanley Cup final that should be fun to watch. Game 1 is Wednesday night in the Big Windy. There will be time for further ruminations on that match-up, but today I thought I’d reflect on some weekend hot stove activity involving an ex-Caps defenseman and some other off-ice doings also involving current or former NHL blueliners.


I started covering the Capitals and the NHL on a day-in, day-out basis in the fall of 1995. Jim Schoenfeld was the Caps’ coach then, and David Poile was the team’s general manager. The Caps played their home games at USAir Arena in Landover, Md. and practiced at Piney Orchard in Crofton, Md. The team had just inexplicably ditched its original red, white and blue color scheme and logo for something entirely um, different.


Clearly, quite a bit has changed since then. That was virtually half a lifetime ago, in terms of the lifespan of the Washington NHL franchise.


Of all the players who wore the black, blue and bronze for the Caps when I started covering the team, goaltender Olie Kolzig was the last to depart. He left the District via the free agent route in the summer of 2008, signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning.


Only one member of that 1995-96 Capitals team still toils in the NHL, and for a while last week I didn’t think he would be back in the circuit at the start of the 2013-14 season in October. That changed over the weekend when the Ottawa Senators shipped ex-Caps defenseman Sergei Gonchar to the Dallas Stars for a conditional sixth-round pick in the NHL Draft.


The swap for Gonchar is the first trade for new Dallas general manager Jim Nill, hired to replace Joe Nieuwendyk at season’s end.


Gonchar – slated to be an unrestricted free agent this summer – recently celebrated his 39th birthday, and I had heard during the 2012-13 season that he hoped to play two more seasons in the NHL. But more recently, I’d heard that he might accept a lucrative KHL offer and finish up in his native Russia. On Friday, word of the swap to the Stars became public, and today Gonchar officially inked a two-year contract extension with Dallas that will pay him a total of $10 million.


I’m glad he’ll be around for a couple more seasons. Besides being one of the most genuine and nicest guys I’ve had the pleasure of knowing over the years, Gonchar has fashioned a very solid career for himself since Washington used a first-round (14th overall) choice in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft to bring Gonchar into the Capitals’ organization.


Heading into next season, Gonchar ranks 32nd all-time among NHL defensemen with 1,177 regular season games played, second among all active NHL rearguards. If he stays reasonably healthy over his two seasons in Dallas, Gonchar could crack the top 20 in that category by the end of his pact.


Gonchar has amassed 775 career points (217 goals, 558 assists) over the course of his NHL career, placing him 17th all-time in scoring among defensemen. He ranks 14th in goals and 19th in assists. He has a reasonable amount of upward mobility on the all-time ledgers of those categories, too.


Last season, Gonchar averaged 24 minutes a night (26th among defensemen) and .60 points per game (11th among defensemen who played in at least 24 games). That shows he’s still getting the job done on the ice, which is what led Dallas to make the deal in the first place.


Dallas hasn’t had a top-10 power play since 2006-07 when the Stars were seventh in the NHL with the extra man, and Gonchar can still deal from point when his team has the extra man.


Only three blueliners – Calle Johansson, Rod Langway and Kevin Hatcher – have played more games in a Caps sweater than Gonchar’s 654 and only Johansson, Scott Stevens and Hatcher totaled more points than Gonchar did (416) during his tenure here in D.C.


As of this writing, eight of the top 14 defensemen in terms of all-time games played are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Two more (Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom) are locks to gain election to the Hall sooner rather than later.


I don’t think Gonchar is a Hockey Hall of Famer, but he has certainly made quite a career for himself and has been a consistent performer in the league for the better part of two decades. Including Gonchar, only four players from the 1992 draft class were still active in the NHL last season: Roman Hamrlik, Adrian Aucoin and Nikolai Khabibulin. I wish Gonchar continued success in Dallas.


I mentioned ex-Caps GM David Poile earlier, and Poile made some news today in signing defenseman Roman Josi to a seven-year contract extension worth a total of $28 million. Josi’s salary cap hit will be $4 million annually over the life of that pact. At the age of 23 and with just two seasons and 100 NHL games worth of experience to his credit, Josi has inked a deal that pays him more than the one John Carlson signed with Washington late last summer.


Last September, Carlson signed a six-year deal that will pay him $23.8 million. The Washington blueliner was drafted 11 spots ahead of Josi in 2008, and he had a larger (and by many measures better) body of work than Josi at the time of the two players’ respective signings.


Carlson signed just ahead of last year’s lockout; we did not know what the salary cap would look like beyond that juncture at that time. Josi’s deal was made with the cap set at $64.3 million for the upcoming season and the likelihood that the figure will trend upward in the years beyond that.


During his days in D.C., Poile lost franchise defenseman Stevens to the St. Louis Blues via restricted free agency. Ironically, the Caps drafted Gonchar with one of the five first-round picks they obtained from the Blues as compensation for the poaching.


Last summer, Poile lost unrestricted free agent defenseman Ryan Suter to a megabucks ($98 million for 13 years) offer from Minnesota. Weeks later, he was forced to shell out $110 million over 14 seasons to retain the services of franchise defenseman Shea Weber, thanks to a pre-emptive offer sheet the Philadelphia Flyers tendered to the defensemen, a restricted free agent at the time.


Given his history with elite defensemen in the past and given the Predators belief in Josi’s ability and upside, it’s not surprising that Poile opted to get the young defenseman locked up for seven years. Josi logged an average of nearly 20 minutes per game in even-strength ice time last season and finished 13th in the NHL in that category in 2012-13. He was also second (to Weber) among Nashville defensemen in power play ice time per contest.


Poile is betting on the last several seasons of Josi’s deal being a relative bargain. If the young Swiss defender keeps trending upward on his development path and if the NHL’s salary cap level arcs in that direction as well, Poile may be right on.


The Josi deal – and many others like it – illustrates the importance of drafting and developing talent within the organization. Year in and year out, the free agent pool gets shallower. If you’re going to dip a toe into those waters, you’re likely going to have to overpay. With the salary cap coming down for 2013-14, that’s a difficult proposition. The ability to draft and develop players grows more and more crucial with each passing season.


Finally, congratulations to Dallas Eakins, the new head coach of the Edmonton Oilers. Eakins had an undistinguished NHL playing career in which he logged 120 games over 10 seasons with seven different organizations. One of only four Florida-born (Dade City) players to play in the NHL, Eakins also played in nearly a thousand games (including playoffs) for several different minor league clubs during the course of his career.


Eakins was a 1985 Capitals draft choice; Washington grabbed him in the 10th round with the 208th overall pick that summer. Eakins never signed or played with Washington. His NHL claim to fame is that he has played the third-most games of any player in league history who did not score a goal during his career.


After serving as an assistant to Paul Maurice for two seasons in Toronto, Eakins spent the last four seasons as the bench boss of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. While he was with the Leafs in 2007, I had a chance to chat with Eakins for a few minutes after the morning skate one day. That conversation left me with the impression that he would be a head coach in this league one day.


Today is that day, and I wish him luck and success as he takes over the reins of a young but very talented Oilers team.