Coming out of the NHL lockout prior to the 2005-06 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins took a New York Rangers-like dive into the free agency pool, signing high-profile players Sergei Gonchar, John Leclair, Zigmund Palffy, Mark Recchi and Jocelyn Thibault. Playoff hopes were higher than they were in any of the previous three seasons, and the hype machine was spinning out of control. As it turns out, the season was nothing short of a disaster, salvaged only by the rookie performance of Sidney Crosby and the fact it resulted in the No. 2 overall pick the following summer, used to select Jordan Staal.
Palffy retired halfway through the season, and Leclair and Recchi were dumped over the course of the next two seasons. The one player that worked out and is still with the team today? Gonchar, and they're a completely different team without him.
After spending the first 10 seasons of his career with the Washington Capitals (and about two months with the Boston Bruins) the Penguins signed Gonchar to a five-year, $25 million contract in July, 2005. After a sluggish start in the first half of the season, Gonchar quickly established himself as the No. 1 defenseman in Pittsburgh and the player it used to match up against the other team's top lines.
Draft Year: 1992
Gonchar went 14th overall in 1992. Roman Hamrlik and Alexei Yashin went Nos. 1 and 2 to the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators, while the rest of the top-10 consisted of Mike Rathje, Todd Warriner, Darius Kasparaitis, Cory Stillman, Ryan Sittler, Brandon Convery, Robert Petrovicky, and Andrei Nazarov. Not exactly a banner year for top-10, superstar talent.
Why He's On My List
Always one of the best offensive defensemen in the league, Gonchar has made huge improvements to his defensive game in recent years and is a legitimate No. 1 defenseman. It's possible that he's playing the best hockey of his career at this point.
Obligatory YouTube Video
Perhaps the biggest goal of Gonchar's career, the game-winner in Game 3 of this year's Stanley Cup Final. If the Penguins lose this game they go down 3-0 in the series and don't come back to win the Cup.