I'm not doing handsprings over the Moen-Gonchar trade, but I admit the logical cool-headed types who point out we're freaking out over a swap of spare parts have talked me down off the ledge. Yesterday, when I found out Marc Bergevin had unloaded Travis Moen's contract, a day after making a decision on René Bourque, I was overjoyed. Only, I then took the gift horse to the dentist and started nitpicking. So yeah, I'll take this as a tweak, another step forward.
About the Montreal Gazette's Stu Cowan's article in which he mentions that Alexei Emelin and P.K. don't communicate, it's not necessarily a language barrier issue, although that probably plays a role also. The important communication between defencemen who play well together isn't so much lengthy palavers in the dressing room, or one of those discussions on the bench when dmen motion with their hands and point and nod a lot. What's most important is the on-ice communication at crucial times so that both work as an effective pair, as a unit.
This will be Defenceman 101 for those who have played or coached, but maybe it will clarify the matter for some. Let's say I've hit someone in the neutral zone but now the puck is being dumped behind me in my corner, with opponent forwards racing after it. It's on my side of the ice, normally it would be my responsibility to go in the corner and retrieve it, while my partner covers anyone going to our net for a pass, and will stay in front of our net to defend. In this case though, I'm flatfooted, and there's no way I'll get there first, while my partner was hanging a little further back and already has a head of steam, so he'll make the right decision and yell out: "I got it!", and race to my corner. We now both know what the other is doing. He's getting the puck and trying to pass or skate it out of our zone, and I'll take the front of the net.
Once the crisis is over and our forwards are racing out of our zone, and we're lazily following after them, we'll assess that they have the puck well in hand, and decide to revert to our preferred position, me on the left, he on the right, so one of us will yell out "Switch!" and we'll swap sides as we skate up to their blue line. We can also use 'switch' if we're on our natural side on the blue line, but I'm with a partner who feels more comfortable on his opposite side because it allows him to set up for one-timers, and we feel it's the right time and situation to set up for one of those.
Other calls we may use are when we're being swarmed in our zone and I'm headed to the corner to dig for a puck. I'll probably have a second before I get tattooed into the boards by an opponent, so I won't have time to frantically swivel my head left and right and hem and haw and ponder the situation. Meanwhile my partner has a better overall view of the situation, and can make that decision for me, like an infielder can help a teammate camped under a pop-up by telling him where to fire the ball when he catches it, whether "Home!" or "Second!" is the best option. In our case, my partner will tell me "Par la bande!" to bang it off the boards or glass and hopefully out of our zone, or "En arrière!" if the choice is pass it to him or the centre behind our net.
Once I've played with a partner or a couple of different partners for a while, I'll know their tendencies, where they'll head in certain situations, how they'll tend to be aggressive or conservative in certain situations. I'll certainly recognize their voice, so if they're behind me and I need to make a quick decision with the puck, he'll yell "Ici!" so I know that he wants the puck, he's a good option for a pass, and the sound of his voice will tell me if he's just beside me, or right behind the net, or all the way in the other corner, and I'll pass the puck with the appropriate amount of force.
These are some of the basic calls we'd use on the ice at my very basic level, I'm sure there are others and more advanced ones in the pros, even set plays for breakouts that they've practiced. The communication isn't that language dependent, we'd use French in minor hockey, but in my adult rec league we'd tend to use English, although the two D partners I'd play most often with were francophones so we'd lapse into French sometimes.
The thing that's more important is actually using the calls, talking to each other all the time. Letting your partner know that he's being forechecked hard ("On you!") or that he's got time to be fancy with the puck ("You have lots of time to be fancy with the puck!"). Your partner letting you know that someone is sneaking in behind you when you're defending the front of the net. Your coach will tell you on the bench or in the room if you're doing a good job ("Way to talk to each other on the ice") or remind you to do more of it ("Let's get some chatter going, talk to each other").
So P.K. and Alexei have to build an understanding of each other's styles and tendencies, a repertoire of callouts for their own use and situations, to cover for example the fact that in the offensive zone, they may defer to P.K. to shoot, except in these circumstances, etc. Alexei and Andrei Markov seemed to do this well, and it may have to do with the comfort level of the language being the same, and also that Andrei is steady as they come, and the unquestioned leader on that pairing, what he said goes.
For example, Andrei tends to be aggressive in the offensive zone to pinch in to support and maintain the attack, and in the neutral zone, he has a great sense of passing lanes and will lurk, goading an opponent into making a pass, then spring forward and cut it off, almost like a safety hanging back to fool a quarterback and then jumping a route for an interception. When it works out it's great, but when it didn't it meant that Andrei was often caught at a standstill in the neutral zone and in a poor position to go retrieve a puck in his own corner. What developed a couple of seasons ago was that Alexei invariably was the one who would retrieve the puck, I don't think they even called "Switch!", they just did it routinely, based on Andrei declining speed, his reluctance to crash and bang in the corners with his wonky knee, and Alexei greater size and toughness. They were sympatico, working as a unit.
P.K. has a more shall we say unorthodox style, he's a more difficult player to find a partner for. The Senators had this issue with Erik Karlsson, and went out and acquired Marc Méthot at the cost of a big young winger, just to provide him with a big, tough, steady-eddie partner to fill in the gaps. Apparently that worked out great the first year, but they've struggled a bit since, and now Chris Phillips is the player called upon to complement Erik Karlsson. The thing is, the Sens' captain is a great talent, but he's not easy to play with. As unpredictable as he is to opponents, he may be the same to his partner, and so may P.K. be.
Josh Gorges and Hal Gill were decent partners for P.K., they came with flaws but there was a clear delineation of duties, they took care of the stay-at-home stuff, and P.K. could roam wild and free. Alexei may be having trouble adapting to that, his style was supposedly more aggressive in the KHL.
What Sergei Gonchar brings is a bit of a headscratcher. Does he get a tryout on P.K.'s flank, in the hope that he's the puzzle piece that fits, the patch job that will hold for now? Does Nathan Beaulieu get to stay on the second pairing, which Éric Desjardins opined might be the better situation for him, compared to the third pairing that tends to see more crash and bang? Does Jarred Tinordi ever become the ideal partner for P.K., the Hal Gill 2.0, "now with added punchiness"? Can he do so while playing in Hamilton, does Magnus Nygren serve as the 'scout team' P.K.?
Until the experiments cease and we have more set pairings, it will be even more important that the defencemen talk to each other on the ice, to let each other know where they are, what they intend to do. It's not going to be a telepathic link between them, they need to play years together to get to that point.