August 18, 2013

Alexei Ponikarovski: The Poni Express

New Jersey Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk shocked the hockey world in the summer of 2013 when he controversially turned his back on tens of millions of NHL dollars to "retire" and go home to play for plenty of rubles in Russia.

Far less noted was news that Kovy's NJ teammate and close friend Alexei Ponikarovsky also left the NHL to also sign with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL. At least, Ponikarovsky, 33, was an unrestricted free agent, but the move may effectively end the chapter on his NHL career.

Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 4th round (87th overall) of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, Ponikarovsky was a blend of excitement and frustration in the blue and white. He had imposing size and great speed. He could bring people out of their seats he drove at defenders and barrelled his way to the net.

However he could frustrate fans as he often reverted to a finesse game, relying on his above-average puckhandling ability and playing on the perimeter. He lacked a playmaker's vision to excel at that game. He had a heavy shot, though he was not a natural scorer. And he was inconsistent in his use of his size.

His speed and size aside, Alexei Ponikarovsky was probably best known as a responsible two way winger. Some will remember him as an underachiever, which I think is quite unfair. He may never have emerged as a genuine top-six scorer, but he was a valuable swing player, jumping up and down the line up and playing on both specialty teams. He was shoe-horned into that top six role on a Leafs team that craved offense behind Mats Sundin.

"Poni" left Toronto in 2010 and bounced around the league with Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Carolina, Winnipeg and New Jersey twice, without a lot of success. Perhaps that vagabond life played a role in his decision to join the KHL.

In 678 NHL games Alexei Ponikarovsky scored 139 goals, 184 assists, 323 points and 419 PIM.

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