Not much was thought of the Hurricanes signing of Alexei Ponikarovski to a one-year deal worth $1.25 mil per season and for good reason. He didn’t exactly light things up with the Los Angeles Kings last season by scoring only 5 goals and 15 points in 61 games with them. Anyone who is coming off a season like that isn’t going to get a lot of hype from the fans or media. However, Ponikarovsky was a decent offensive player for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the the five previous seasons. He has also been a good player through Corsi the last four seasons but if you take a look at his player card at Behind The Net, you’ll see that he got tougher assignments in Los Angeles and was used more as a defensive player rather than a top-six winger like he was in Toronto. Instead of “Which Ponikarovsky will the Canes get this season,” I think the question going into this year will be “How will the Canes use Ponikarovski? Will he be a third liner whose only role is to play defense and create momentum or do we bump him to a scoring line? You could make a good argument for both sides.
If you take a look back at his player card and compare his Corsi on with his offensive zone starts, you’ll see that he was effective when used in offensive situations and in those seasons with Toronto (and 16 with Pittsburgh), he scored 18, 23 and 21 goals respectively while putting up 35, 61 and 50 points. Then look at his last year in Los Angeles, he saw tougher competition and had less starts that begun in the offensive zone. His most frequent linemates were also Michal Handzus and Wayne Simmonds, which was LA’s third line that was relied upon for energy and momentum for most of the time. Ponikarovsky also had a higher corsi percentage than those three along with an abysmal shooting percentage but he only had 96 shots on goal so take that for what it’s worth.
I spoke with a few Kings fans and asked them what they saw from Poni this season and what the Canes should expect from him and the general consensus is that he did all what Terry Murray asked him to do as a third liner: he played defense, worked hard, created momentum and occassionally set up his linemates. The problem is that he barely pitched in offensively and rarely shot the puck and was eventually bumped down to the fourth line once players like Kyle Clifford began to do the same things he and provide offense along with it. He played with Kevin Wesgarth and Trevor Lewis for most of the playoffs. I’m not completely sure of how he was in his Toronto Maple Leafs days but judging from what I was told by their fans, he was solid defensively for the Leafs and did a lot to create offensive pressure there so those goals weren’t completely luck. He is only 30 years old so it’s not like his ability just completely drifted away after one season. Just compare the roles and linemates he had with Toronto with what he had in LA. I’m sure most wingers would see an increase in point total if they played on a line centered by Mikhail Grabovksi or Nik Antropov instead of Michal Handzus or Trevor Lewis.
Now we just need to think about how Maurice will use Ponikarovsky in Carolina. I’ve addressed this a few times but the team really needs another goal scoring winger right now and if Maurice chooses to use him on one of the top two lines, then Poni replicating his production in Toronto when he was on a scoring line there, then it would definitely be a big help to the Canes. The one issue here is that I am not sure if he should be placed on Eric Staal’s line right away unless he starts shooting the puck more, that and Jussi Jokinen seems to have the LW spot on the second line solidified for now so maybe the third line spot with Chad LaRose and Brandon Sutter is a good fit for him. He seems like he would fit on this line the best because these two are also defensively responsible and can provide offensive as well. The problem here is that these two got tougher zone starts than others on the team and Ponikarovsky’s history suggests that he can’t score when he’s given tougher assignments. LaRose and Sutter also had similar point totals to what Handzus and Simmonds had last season, so playing on the Canes third line would put him in nearly the same situation as he was with the Kings. Sutter has a higher ceiling than Handzus right now, though so he may have a little more to work with. If he repeats what he did in LA, then the Canes will at least have themselves a big, physical, defensive winger who plays well territorially. If he does neither and compltely flops, then it only cost the Canes $1.25 for one year to sign him. This is pretty much the definition of a low-risk, decent reward signing.