Q: It seems like everyone is expecting Sergei Gonchar to come back and "save" the team and carry it to the playoffs. My concern is he hasn't played a real game since June of last year, and he is a chronically slow starter. So the question is, does he play like October Gonchar, or April Gonchar when he comes back?
Eric Howard, Ohio Township
MOLINARI: And the answer is, as you might suspect, that no one knows.
There's no precedent for Gonchar being out this long -- remember, his only game action since the Stanley Cup final last June was in the Penguins' exhibition opener, when he was injured early in the first period -- so any guess on how he will perform when he returns would be nothing more than that.
It is not, in general, realistic to expect any player to have a profound, positive impact immediately after he comes back from a lengthy absence. No matter how well-conditioned a guy is, or how sharp he appears to be in practice, there are situations that arise during games that cannot be duplicated in any workout. Gonchar proved last season that he can be one of the NHL's top defensemen, but it wouldn't be practical for anyone -- especially Gonchar -- to expect him to step into the lineup and perform like he never had been out. It could happen, of course, but the odds say it won't.
Whether Gonchar's history as a slow starter will be relevant now is open to debate, because this isn't anything like what he's faced when preparing to play in previous seasons. It might be worth noting, though, that Gonchar got a much better than usual start in 2007-08, and attributed it to changes in his offseason training regimen. Nothing he did last summer is likely to have an impact now, of course, but if nothing else, his work early last season proved that Gonchar isn't hard-wired to struggle when his season is getting underway.
Q: With regard to trades, is the NHL's collective bargaining agreement anything like baseball's? In baseball, a lot of trades happen because a team can assume a portion of a player's salary. Is that the case in hockey?
MOLINARI: The NHL's labor agreement calls for teams to assume all responsibility for the contract of any player acquired in a trade. (The only time, in fact, that isn't true is when a player is obtained on re-entry waivers, in which case his salary and salary-cap hit are split between his old and new clubs.) There is, however, sentiment among some general managers to relax that restriction.
Proponents contend that if teams were allowed to continue paying at least a portion of the salary of a player they are trying to trade, there would be more deals negotiated, which would translate to more fan interest.
That might well be true, but it would also be a move to circumvent one of the features of the CBA that was designed to keep all 30 franchise on a relatively even financial footing. If deep-pockets teams are allowed to get rid of some of their personnel mistakes by paying a portion of their salaries, that would give them an edge over clubs compelled to operate on a tighter budget.
Franchises that are well-heeled already can use their resources to gain an advantage by spending more on top-notch scouting departments, training facilities and player-development programs than would be prudent for other clubs. Allowing them to get around the salary-cap ceiling by shedding players that other teams wouldn't want if they had to pay full price for them is an edge they shouldn't be given.
Those teams whose spending is limited by the salary cap, not a self-imposed budget, also have the ability to assign underachievers to the minors leagues, where their salaries don't count against the cap.
While most clubs understandably would balk at paying seven figures to a guy playing in the American Hockey League, it can be done to create some cap space at the major-league level.