Gonchar has right to leave

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There's not much doubt that winger Matt Cooke took less money to stay with the Penguins last week than he could have found as a free agent on the open market this week. Good for him. Like teammates Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Brooks Orpik, he put a value on playing here in front of hockey's best fans, playing for owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux and playing for a Stanley Cup contender. Good for all those guys.

Defenseman Sergei Gonchar appears ready to take a different path if I'm reading the Penguins' trade Friday night for the negotiating rights to free agent-to-be defenseman Dan Hamhuis correctly. Although things could change, Gonchar seems ready to take a run at free agency and sell himself to the highest bidder, not necessarily for so much more money, but for more years in a guaranteed contract. Good for him. He has earned that right. He should not be condemned if he leaves.

Two players.

Two approaches.

One isn't more right than the other.

The Cooke re-signing is terrific for the Penguins. He is very good at what he does. Sure, he can be a dirty player at times. His shoulder-to-head hit on Boston's Marc Savard in March wasn't just brutal, it nudged the Neanderthal-like NHL officials to take a tougher stance against hits to the head.

But Cooke is so much more than just an agitator. He has hockey skills. He scored 15 goals during the past regular season and was a plus-17, and had four more goals in the playoffs. He is a splendid penalty-killer. He's also respected in the Penguins' room.

A three-year, $5.4 million contract seems like a bargain for Cooke, even if he will turn 32 Sept. 7. "I'm very comfortable with the length of the contract. His durability is good. He plays," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said.

Then, Shero added, "How much would it cost me to replace Matt Cooke? Who do I get to do it? ...

"In the end, maybe I paid a little more than I expected and he took a little less than he expected. But that's how you do a deal. We're both happy."

That's the key, especially in Cooke's case. He did a contract that was right for him even if he could have gotten a little more as a free agent.

"Change is hard for some players," Shero said. "Matt knows what he has with us. He has a role. If he goes somewhere else, he might not get the same minutes. He might not get to kill penalties. As long as his family is happy ... "

Can I say it again?

Good for Cooke for staying.

That doesn't mean that Gonchar has to stay, though. Just like Cooke, he has to do what's right for him. The NHL free-agency system gives him that right. If it means staying with the Penguins, great. If not, that's fine, too.

Shero bought himself a little insurance by sending a 2011 third-round draft pick to Philadelphia for the rights to Hamhuis, a bigger, more physical defenseman who also becomes a free agent Friday. He says it's not an either-or situation with Hamhuis and Gonchar, but that's hard to believe. I'm thinking Hamhuis, 27, is the more likely of the two to sign with the Penguins. Shero and Hamhuis have a relationship going back to their days together with the Nashville Predators.

Shero said he still wants Gonchar, as well. "We think he's still a really good defenseman who can play at a high level for a few more years," he said. The questions are these: Is Gonchar, 36, willing to take two years with the Penguins when he might get three or four as a free agent? Or, if he asks for three here, is he willing to take significantly less than the $5 million-a-year he made in his old Penguins contract?

I don't know those answers, but I do know this: Gonchar owes the Penguins nothing. He was paid handsomely, but he gave the team five great years. It wouldn't have won the Cup without him in 2008-09 and wouldn't have made it to the Cup final without him the season before.

A lot of people remember Gonchar's horrible Game 7 against the Montreal Canadiens in this past season's playoffs. Count me among them. I still can see Travis Moen blowing past him short-handed to score the Canadiens' fourth goal in their 5-2 win. But Gonchar was no worse than the other Penguins that night. Crosby, Malkin and especially goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury also were lousy.

There's no doubt Gonchar will be missed if he leaves, although I like to think Kris Letang or Alex Goligoski is ready to take over running the Penguins' power play. I'm still holding out some hope that Gonchar takes a two-year deal here, but I have my doubts.

If Gonchar leaves and I'm Shero, I'm not the least bit bitter. I'm thanking Gonchar for his sizable contributions, not just for his brilliant work on the power play, but for his valuable mentorship to Malkin and the calmness he brought to the team's room. I'm thanking him for coming back after missing Games 5 and 6 of the '09 playoff series against Washington because of a knee-on-knee hit from the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin to help the Penguins win Game 7 despite playing on virtually one leg. And I'm thanking him for coming back from paralyzing back spasms in Game 5 of the Cup final against Detroit in '08 and getting a power-play assist on Petr Sykora's winning goal in the third overtime.

You should thank Gonchar, too.

Applaud Cooke all you want for staying with the Penguins. He deserves it. Just don't begrudge Gonchar if he leaves. He doesn't deserve that.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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