There were more than a couple of candidates for promotion on the Baby Buds last season as injury call-ups when one of the big boys went down at the ACC. Adam Mair (since traded to the Los Angeles Kings), Donald Maclean, Jeff Farkas, Mikael Hakansson (since returned to Djurgarten in the SEL), even Alyn McCauley (who actually did make the playoff roster) all had more experience than Alexei Ponikarovsky at the pro level. Nonetheless when the dust cleared it was the big Ukranian who played more NHL games with Toronto than any of them by the campaign’s end with 22. While it is true his stats didn’t overwhelm anyone, it can also be said that playing in the bottom half of the forward rotation, mostly on the fourth line, didn’t help matters any. However, there is much more to any hockey player than statistics and #39 showed in his limited trial that he could be at least Adam Mair’s equal in a checking role (thus opening the door for that transaction).
Ponikarovsky’s game starts with his size 6’4″ 210 pounds and mobility which is above average for his measurements. He uses his big frame not so much to bang and crash the way, say, a Darcy Tucker would, but more in a shielding manner ala Mats Sundin. On more than a few occasions the Leaf farmhand demonstrated he could make himself an imposing obstacle in the corners when others went fishing for the puck. He was simply to big to splatter and too quick to get an angle on. He also showed a willingness to hustle back and take a man after a turnover deep in the offensive zone which is imperative in the Leafs transition offense. What went missing, of course, was the offense. Even in rookie camp last season Ponikarovsky showed some awkwardness in the early going on this front almost not trusting himself to get it done. A brilliant offensive play was followed up by one that was decidedly lacklustre. As the year went on though, he started hitting his stride a bit, getting used to level of competition and his new responsibilities higher up on the St. John’s food chain.
This time out expect him to line up on the outside in an effort to free him somewhat from the defensive assignments that accompany a player in the pivot and be centered by one of Bob Wren, Luca Cereda, Alyn McCauley (if he doesn’t make the big team). This will allow him to be a bit more selfish with the puck on offense (he had twice as many assists as goals last season) and thereby improve on his offensive skills. The big guy may actually spend more time on The Rock as he did last year, but this is not to be construed as a step back. Rather, this is his opportunity to take a step forward to make a claim on a roster spot in 2002/2003.