Having spent most of his career in one place, Alexei Ponikarovsky knows how hard it is to switch teams. He’s hoping for a little more luck this time around.
At this time last year, the 31-year-old native of the Ukraine had just experienced unrestricted free agency for the first time, opting to sign a deal with the Los Angeles Kings. That one-year contract did not provide the same kind of stability he had enjoyed for the previous nine seasons in Toronto, making his early struggle with injuries that much more difficult.
“I was excited to go to Los Angeles and prove myself, but right at the beginning I broke my finger,” he said. “Usually I just try to suck it up and play, but with a broken finger you can’t really do anything. I came back and then sprained my ankle right away and missed more time.”
Unlike in Toronto, where he had spent his entire NHL career with the exception of a post-trade-deadline rental stint in Pittsburgh the previous spring, his lack of established roots in a new organization made things difficult.
“You have to prove yourself to the coach all over again,” he said. “It’s frustrating to get injuries because there are always guys coming up and competing for your spot. It takes time to fit into the team again.”
When it was all said and done, Ponikarovsky was limited to 61 games. His 15 points (5g, 10a) marked his lowest total as a full-time NHL player and were well short of the career-high 61 (23g, 38) he posted with the Maple Leafs in 2008-09.
While he said Los Angeles never officially shut the door on a potential return there, he felt the serious interest he received from Carolina on July 1 couldn’t be turned down.
“I just want to get back on track and play the way I did in Toronto,” he said. “This is a new chapter in my career.”
Although he’s still a relative stranger to the Hurricanes organization, some existing ties to select personnel should make his transition easier than last season. Besides having played alongside Jay Harrison, Tomas Kaberle and Jiri Tlusty in Toronto, he most notably played his best hockey under coach Paul Maurice.
“I know Paul and he knows the way I play in his system,” said Ponikarovsky. “Carolina plays that open hockey like they played in Toronto when we were there. I think he knows that and he believes in me, and that gives you confidence.
“He’s a good person and a good coach. When I heard Carolina was interested I was excited because Paul knows what I’m capable of and what I can do.”
Having once patrolled the left side of Mats Sundin on Toronto’s first line, he’ll be a candidate to fill that same role alongside Eric Staal this season. Even if that spot ends up going to someone like Jussi Jokinen, Jeff Skinner or one of the team’s up-and-coming young players, the Hurricanes believe the four-time 20-goal scorer can add size (at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, he’s instantly one of the team’s biggest forwards) and skating ability to any spot in the lineup.
However, Ponikarovsky, fresh off an entire season spent trying to prove himself in new surroundings, knows he’s in for more of the same come training camp.
“It’s not like you’re going to roll right into the team,” he said. “You just have to earn your way to play with guys like Staal and Skinner.”