Despite all that Sergei Gonchar had accomplished -- leading all NHL defensemen in goals, playing in consecutive all-star games, representing Russia in two Olympics, garnering Norris Trophy votes as the NHL's top defenseman -- he felt empty. The accolades were nice, but they could not dispel a lingering reputation.
Among his peers, Gonchar was seen as a one-dimensional player. He had become an offensive star in his nine seasons with the Washington Capitals, but also a defensive liability, as likely to hand the puck to the other team as he was to put it in the net. He did not play against the best lines in the NHL. He was not on the ice late in games when his team had a lead. He was susceptible to heavy hits and would sometimes wilt after those collisions.
But as Gonchar heads to Florida for Sunday's All-Star Game, again leading all NHL defensemen with 47 points, he is finally fulfilled. He has become a complete defenseman this season, adept is all facets of play, taking full advantage of the expanded responsibilities handed to him by Washington's new coaching staff. Head coach Bruce Cassidy, a former defenseman, and assistant coach Randy Carlyle, an esteemed offensive defenseman and former Norris Trophy winner, have helped Gonchar reinvent himself while remaining one of the most feared offensive players at his position.
"It's a great feeling," Gonchar said. "Before, I was concentrating only on offense, and the previous coach [Ron Wilson] only used me mostly when we needed to score. It's a different responsibility now and I like the way I am playing better because I am playing all the time. You don't have to think, should I get off [the ice] now because there is a top player coming out for the other team and this and that.
"Inside of me I feel much better now because I am useful at both ends of the ice -- defense and offense. I am proving to myself that I can do it and actually that was my goal since the beginning of the year, because I had a reputation that I can't do anything defensively, and now I can prove to myself I can do it and it's a great feeling to be playing like this."
Gonchar was a frequent topic of conversation during personnel meetings between General Manager George McPhee and Cassidy shortly after the new coach was hired last summer. McPhee watched defensemen with skills similar to Gonchar's, such as New York Islander Adrian Aucoin and St. Louis Blue Al MacInnis, play close to 30 minutes a game and maintain a high level of play, and thought Gonchar could do the same if given more shifts, more duties and more faith from the coaching staff.
In the past, Gonchar, 28, was protected from difficult situations. The last time Washington was in the playoffs -- in 2001 -- Gonchar and defensive partner Joe Reekie were used only against Pittsburgh's third and fourth lines, while aging veterans Sylvain Cote and Rob Zettler, both since retired, matched up against stars Alexei Kovalev and Martin Straka, and Brendan Witt and Calle Johansson played against Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr on the first line.
Gonchar's turnover at the blueline in Game 6 of that series led to Pittsburgh's series-winning goal, and symbolized the kind of lapses that often frustrated Wilson. Gonchar usually played about 20 minutes a game before this season, with many of those minutes coming on the power play, but is averaging 27 minutes a game this season -- most on the team and fourth-most in the NHL. He is killing penalties well and is much safer with the puck, and he is a totally different defenseman around his own net, more focused and more poised.
"You can't continue to hide a player and expect him to develop," McPhee said. "Our coaches decided that he can play at both ends of the rink and they wanted to give him more ice time, and it's good for him and it's very important to the organization to be able to roll any of our defensemen out there against the opposition and not have to worry about the matchup. It's been good for Gonch and very good for us."
Cassidy and Carlyle approached Gonchar in the preseason and detailed their plans for him. He was going to be their workhorse. He was going to play in all situations. It was the fresh start he relished.
"It's not always easy to ask a player to change the way he plays when you don't really know the guy and he's been an all-star and been a high point guy," said Cassidy, coaching his first season in the NHL. "But from Day One, Gonch came across as a good person and was very approachable and he bought right into it. I think the previous staff saw more flaws in his game than we did, and we gave Sergei the benefit of the doubt and he went out and did it."
"The coaches were the ones that came to me and said, 'We think you can do this, it doesn't matter what people said before,' " Gonchar said. "Butch and Randy both told me they believe in me and they believe I can do it. They told me that before the season started, and obviously when the coaches trust you, you get confidence and you start playing better and you feed on their trust."
Carlyle and Gonchar, the top goal-scoring defenseman over the last five seasons, struck up an instant rapport. Carlyle learned to balance his offensive instincts and defensive responsibilities during his 17-year NHL career and could impart tactics that Gonchar eagerly absorbed. Gonchar never shunned the tutorials and continues to seek them out, crediting Carlyle for helping him adjust his positioning to avoid being pounded, learn to poke check and use his stick more adroitly to defend. Carlyle also has bolstered Gonchar's confidence by playing him so much even after he makes a mistake on he ice.
"All I've tried to do with Sergei Gonchar is try to have a calming type of effect on him," Carlyle said. "Gonch is a guy who takes things to heart. When you say something to him it seems like he takes it inside to where you're hitting a chord with him and he's not a really emotional guy, but he has an emotional side to him. I think he was very, very disappointed he was not considered an all-around type of player and we tried to demonstrate to him some of the things he could do to allow that to happen and he's been very, very receptive and no maintenance."
It took a while for Gonchar to believe he could play this well. The first few games he chalked up to luck. But after half a season, he was sold, forming a dependable pairing with Ken Klee that got better by the game. The rest of the team noticed the changes as well.
"I have more of a comfort level with Gonch now," goaltender Olaf Kolzig said. "He really cares about what he's doing and he doesn't want to let his teammates down and he's less of a risk taker now. He's played a lot of years in this league and he's gotten through a lot of adversity and a lot of success, and he's kind of balanced everything."
Gonchar handles the puck more fluidly around the crease and in the corners. He began to prefer the simple play, improved his positioning in front of the net and became a more consistent performer when faced with an odd-man rush. The ability to join the forward rush remains, the booming shot still haunts goalies, the passing accuracy has not wavered. Everything else about Gonchar this season is refreshingly new.
"As Gonch has matured as a person I think he's started to understand that he'll never get the recognition he deserves until he is known for being good at both ends of the ice," said Wilson, who was named coach in San Jose in December. "He started this season doing the same things he always has, and he's come to understand what his role is and what he needs to do to help the team win and get the recognition around the league that he deserves. He's finally starting to reach that elite level."