When Penguins general manager Ray Shero pulled the trigger to acquire defenseman Jordan Leopold from the Florida Panthers on Monday he said he was happy with the makeup of his team. Shero did allow that he would continue working the phones, and if the right deal came along, he wouldn’t be shy to make another upgrade, but he didn’t see it as a necessity.
As afternoon turned to evening on Tuesday, such an opportunity arose and Shero pulled the trigger on a deal to acquire left winger Alexei Ponikarovsky from the Toronto Maple Leafs minutes after the Penguins’ 3-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres at Mellon Arena.
In exchange the Penguins sent defenseman Martin Skoula and forward prospect Luca Caputi to the Maple Leafs.
“Like I said, going into the deadline here I liked our team, but if there was a chance to upgrade or improve we would try to do that,” Shero said. “We thought the Leopold thing, getting another defenseman would, and it does. Certainly looking around up front at some of the other forwards we thought Ponikarovsky was a guy who could fit into a top-six role for us. That is what he has been in his career. I think we have made ourselves better.”
While the Penguins are certainly a better team now that they will be adding Ponikarovsky’s 19 goals and 41 points into their lineup, the 29-year-old Kiev, Ukraine native certainly benefits from the acquisition as well.
The career Maple Leaf jumps 29 points in the standings from Toronto’s spot at the bottom of the Eastern Conference to a Pittsburgh team vying for first place in the Atlantic Division. Coming to Pittsburgh allows Ponikarovsky to return to the postseason for the first time since his first full National Hockey League campaign way back in 2003-04.
“It’s a good feeling because (Toronto) hasn’t been a contender for the playoffs the past four or five years now,” Ponikarovsky said. “I remember the days when we were playing in the playoffs every year. It’s a big change right now for me. I am excited.
“The Maple Leafs are my first team. I was drafted by them and they helped me become an (NHL) player. But I am going to be 30 years old (on April 9). It was time for me to move on. I know that trades happen. Sometimes they are good and sometimes they are bad. I am pretty happy with the trade and where I am coming to.”
My style has always been to be hard on the puck. I have some speed so I can take people wide and drive the net. I like to use my body down low. - Alexei Ponikarovsky
Penguins fans will have to wait to see Ponikarovsky make his debut in a Pittsburgh sweater as he won’t have a working visa in time to dress against the New York Rangers on Thursday. His first game will instead occur at Mellon Arena on Saturday when the Penguins play host to the Dallas Stars.
When Ponikarovsky does hit the ice, he is expected to skate on the left side next to reigning NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin
. Shero said Ponikarovsky’s skills should be a perfect complement to either Malkin or Sidney Crosby
as head coach Dan Bylsma searches for the perfect fit for the winger.
“He has size and he has a scoring touch,” Shero said. “He is 6-foot-4, 230 pounds. He is very good down low in the offensive zone. He likes to go to the net.
“I think the way Sid and Geno like to play, they have good speed and they like to drive guys, he likes to go to the net too. He should be a good complementary player for us.”
“My style has always been to be hard on the puck,” Ponikarovsky said. “I have some speed so I can take people wide and drive the net. I like to use my body down low. We will talk more about my role with the coach when I get there – what kind of game plan we will have and what I should be doing on the ice.”
Ponikarovsky says he has no preference which of the Penguins’ world-class centers he flanks. He is just excited for the chance to play with such high-caliber linemates.
“Oh yes for sure,” Ponikarovsky said. “It’s a totally different perspective in terms of the team and who you are playing with. It’s going to be really nice.”
Although the Penguins are a playoff-tested squad after back-to-back runs to the Stanley Cup Final, Ponikarovsky hopes to add veteran leadership to the locker room in addition to the offensive production which will be expected from him on the ice.
“I learned a lot from my years in Toronto, especially from the veteran players I was able to play with such as Mats Sundin, Ron Francis, Gary Roberts and Brian Leetch, to name a few,” he said. “As a young player it is good to learn from veterans like that. You just have to carry that on and do the same thing.”
Shero and Bylsma are hoping Ponikarovsky can continue scoring at a pace similar to his past two seasons. Last year he set career highs across the board in goals (23), assists (38) and points (61) while playing in all 82 games for the first time in his career. Playing on a team with the second-fewest total points in the NHL this year, Ponikarovsky is one goal shy of his fourth career 20-goal campaign and is just five tallies away from setting another career best.
“Last year the team didn’t do too well but I tried to keep playing the best as I can,” Ponikarovsky said. “I tried to leave it all on the ice and had a good year. I was working really hard and I was happy with the numbers I put up. This year I am trying to do the same thing.”
“He’s a 20-goal scorer,” Bylsma said. “He’s on pace for around 60 points right now. He’d be the third leading point-getter on our team right now. You’re adding a big body guy who goes to the net. … He’s good in the offensive zone and is good down low. He also has the ability to make a play to his linemates, and that’s what we think we’re getting with Alex coming in.”