OTTAWA – Bryan Murray and the Ottawa Senators got their man on the opening day of free agency, signing veteran Sergei Gonchar to fill a long-existing void on the team’s blue-line.
“It adds a great deal to our team—back-end mobility, the point on the power play. That’s how you win games in the league now,” said Murray, who inked the 36-year-old Gonchar to a three-year, US$16-million deal on Thursday, just minutes after the start of free-agent season.
“He was our No. 1 guy.”
The addition of Gonchar, who’s been named to four all-star games and won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 during his 15-year NHL career, gives the Senators a different look on the back end.
With Anton Volchenkov allowed to leave as an unrestricted free agent and Andy Sutton also not being re-signed, Ottawa loses two of the league’s top shot-blocking rearguards. However, it now gains one of the league’s premier offensive defencemen—something the Senators have previously lacked.
“From a coach’s perspective, I’m very excited,” Senators coach Cory Clouston said. “Bryan mentioned that we put together a list of players that we could potentially go after and (Gonchar), obviously, was on the top of our list.
“I think he adds a lot to our club. We’re sad to see Anton go, but we have to turn a page.”
Murray said the Senators were on the phone trying to land the native of Chelyabinsk, Russia, by 12:01 eastern time. The pursuit of Gonchar will likely be the team’s biggest free agent chase of the summer.
He’s looking forward to joining a team that he’s helped eliminate in two of the past three playoff years, as well as the prospect of playing in Canada after suiting up for the Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins and Penguins during his career.
“I played against Ottawa during last year’s playoffs and I was able to see how good they are,” Gonchar said in a conference call.
He’s expected to visit Ottawa next week.
“They were close to making the next step and going far in the playoffs and I think I can help them with that.
“Also, playing in Canada is something special. Every time I’ve played in Canada, I always play better and I enjoy playing over there and that’s another reason I wanted to sign with them.”
Now, with youngster Erik Karlsson developing into an offensive blue-liner and Filip Kuba returning from a long spell out because of injury, the Senators have made over their blue-line into a much more mobile, creative bunch.
Also, at last week’s entry draft, they sent their first-round pick to the St. Louis Blues for 19-year-old David Rundblad, who, like Karlsson, is another skilled Swede. Rundblad is expected to remain in Sweden for another season, however.
“It’s great to block shots, but I’d like the other team to block shots and you do that by having the puck and helping the forwards get the attack going and being creative, and in particular, from the back end,” Murray said.
Murray said Gonchar brings skating, hands and poise that instantly make the Senators better offensively. Ottawa ranked 15th in the league with 2.68 goals per game this past season.
“You need a guy who can contribute offensively and help your forwards because of the coaching and systems in the league now,” he said.
The Senators were just 21st in the NHL on the power play and Gonchar could make a big difference there.
Gonchar’s deal includes a no-trade clause. He missed 20 games because of injury last season, but still managed to record 11 goals and 39 assists, seventh in the league among defenceman scoring. His 30 power-play points were third among all blue-liners.
Gonchar missed most of the season two years ago and some critics of the signing suggest he’s a risk for three years given his age, but Gonchar said he’s had no lingering effects from previous injuries and intends on being available for the 2014 Winter Olympics in his native Russia.
The Senators also re-signed forward Jesse Winchester, 26, to a two-year deal worth US $750,000 per season.
Winchester, a native of Long Sault, Ont., recorded two goals and 11 assists in 52 games this past season.