ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 8: Alexei Ponikarovsky #27 of the Los Angeles Kings fights for position in front of the net with Toni Lydman #32 and goalie Dan Ellis #8 of the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on April 8, 2011 in Anaheim, California. The Ducks won 2-1 to clinch a berth in the playoffs. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
The Carolina Hurricanes surprised a lot people when they went out and signed Alexei Ponikarovsky on the first day of free agency this past July 1. Jim Rutherford said that the original plan was to put the Ukraine native on the first line with Eric Staal and Erik Cole, but of course Cole ruined that strategy when he bolted for more money and moved on to Montreal.
Still, Ponikarovsky will most likely be given every opportunity to develop some chemistry with Staal.
The big winger is mostly known for his physical positioning in front of the net. He had a disappointing, injury filled season last year playing for the Kings, but he claimed that those injuries were behind him when he signed in July. As a matter of fact, last season he produced the lowest (points per game) total of his career.
Once again, we'll ask someone who watched the winger play every game last year for some perspective. Eric Cooney, who blogs for Pro Sports Blogging.com, was nice enough to provide his take for us.
From Eric Cooney:
Ponikarovsky had a down year offensively for the Kings for sure, but a large part of it was circumstance. The Kings searched all season long for a 1st line LW to play with Kopitar and never found one, Ponikarovsky was just one of the casualties. Once it was clear that Ponikarovsky wasn't clicking with Kopitar there was nothing left but the 3rd or 4th line for him since Ryan Smyth was solidified as 2nd line LW. On top of that, Ryan Smyth was also the net-front man on the PP for the Kings, which is where Poni is most effective, so that reduced his PP time and point totals as well. His linemates for most of the year were Michal Handzus and Wayne Simmonds, who both had down offensive years as well. Add to that the 21 missed games due to injury and you get the picture that Ponikarovsky simply never got into the groove in Los Angeles.
Despite the rather forgettable year, Poni impressed me with several areas of his game. First, some might attribute the "European" stereotype on Poni and suggest he's inconsistent or soft. Neither is true. Poni registered 139 hits in just 61 games, good enough for 4th on the Kings behind hitting machines like Dustin Brown and Matt Greene. While not particularly fast, he isn't slow for a man who is 6'4"/230 lbs. He isn't afraid to go to the dirty areas and fight for the puck. Go on NHL.com and watch every one of Poni's goals as a King and you'll notice they all happen within 5 feet of the net. He's by no means a sniper but he's great at picking up the garbage and turning it into a goal. To that point, Poni needs to be with guys who put the puck at the net in order to score, since he won't be picking corners anytime soon.
However, if that facet of his game isn't working he is still a valuable player. The thing Poni impressed me with most was his effort every night. He never let it get to him that he was demoted, he never hung his head or blamed the coach. He went out and did whatever the Kings asked of him, be it try to create offense or dig the puck out of the corners. When Kopitar went down for the playoffs and the Kings were looking for sparks from anyone, Poni had a few good games where he created offense with his effort. Poni's numbers from his days in Toronto may be inflated due to the lack of talent at the time, resulting in more ice-time for him. So it's better to think of him as a grinder with some scoring touch, rather than an underachieving scorer.
Perhaps being reunited with his old coach from Toronto in Paul Maurice will reignite his scoring touch. The effort and the desire to win are there for the big man, whether he can still find the scoresheet or not is a question left unanswered in L.A.
Can Ponikarovsky return to his Toronto form? Paul Maurice did breath life back into Jussi Jokinen's career after the Finn, at one time, was put on waivers by Tampa Bay. Now Jokinen is one of the more dependable scorers on the Canes.
Before his stint in Los Angeles, Ponikarovsky lit the lamp at least 21 times in four of the previous five seasons. The Canes will be looking for more of that and can certainly use that big body in front of the net during the powerplay.
This could be another "low risk, high reward" signing for Rutherford, who has made his fair share over the years. The winger signed a one year deal worth $1.5 million.
Alexei Ponikarovsky is just one more reason why this will be a very interesting training camp.
(A big thank you to Eric Cooney for his contribution to this article.)