Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series. After the historic 2016 NHL Free Agency period, it’s a good time to look at the best free agent signing in the history of all 30 NHL franchises. Up next: The all-time best Ottawa Senators free agent signing.
Make sure to check out the previous articles in our 2016 summer series here.
The All-Time Best Pittsburgh Penguins Free Agent Signing
2005- Sergei Gonchar: Five years, $25 million
Gonchar, a 6’2 defenseman from Russia, was drafted 14th overall by the Washington Capitals in the 1992 Draft and began his NHL career in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season. He became the first Russian-born defenseman to surpass the 20 goal mark in the 1998-99 season, and passed 50 points for the first time in 2000.
At the 2004 trade deadline, he was dealt to the Boston Bruins in exchange for Shaone Morrisonn and two draft picks. He finished the season with 58 points, the most for a defenseman. He also managed to record 74 goals and 241 points between 2000 and 2004, the most of any NHL defenseman during that span.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were in the process of a major rebuild after the 2004-05 lockout. The acquisition of first-overall pick Sidney Crosby, as well as the potential of previous first-round picks Marc-Andre Fleury and Evgeni Malkin, signaled a new era for the team, and the return of superstar and part-owner Mario Lemieux to the ice was a reminder of past glory.
Pittsburgh General Manager Craig Patrick signed Gonchar to a five-year, $25 million deal on August 4, 2005, hoping that the league-leading defenseman would be a good addition to the team’s blue line. Gonchar played with the KHL’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk during the lockout. His time played with Malkin showed that he might serve as a mentor not only to the young Russian forward, but to young defensemen such as Kris Letang as both franchise cornerstones would be making their NHL debuts the following season.
Gonchar proved to be an excellent acquisition for Pittsburgh, tying his career-high with 67 points in his first season. The Penguins made their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 16 years in 2008, with his 65 points coming in only second to captain Crosby on the Penguins and second to Nicklas Lidstrom out of all defensemen in scoring. After missing most of the 2008-09 season due to injury, Gonchar returned to put in more than 25 minutes of ice time in the Stanley Cup Finals, helping the team win their first Cup since 1992 scoring three goals and 14 points in 22 spring contests. He also helped the team by housing rookie Malkin in 2006, helping him with his adjustment to the North American system. When asked, Malkin has said that he considers Gonchar to be a father figure.
Leaving Pittsburgh after the 2010 playoffs, Gonchar ended up playing five more seasons for the Senators, Stars and Canadiens, Gonchar announced his retirement in October of 2015. The Penguins hired him as a Development coach before the 2015-16 season. His coaching was said to be instrumental in helping the Penguins through their Stanley Cup winning season.
The now-42-year old Gonchar is considered to be one of the best offensive defensemen of his era. He finished 17th all time among blue liners in games played with 1301 and is top-20 in terms of goals (220, 17th), points (811, 17th), power play goals (102, 10th), power play points (427, 7th) and game-winning goals (35, 13th). He’s also one of the more underrated playoff producers that’s ever laced up the skates from the back end as well, scoring 22 goals and 90 points in 141 Stanley Cup Playoff games to tie for 18th all-time in points and 5th all-time in game winning goals among defensemen with seven.