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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gonchar Reinvents Blue Line Image

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida -- 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 Gonchar -- again leading all NHL defensemen with 47 points -- is finally fulfilled. He has become a complete defenseman this season, adept in 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."

Gonchar was a frequent topic of conversation during personnel meetings between general manager George McPhee and Cassidy shortly after the new coach's hiring 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 per 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 per game before this season, with many of those minutes coming on the power play, but is averaging 27 minutes per 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 1 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 the get confidence and you start playing better and you feed on their trust."