He may not be Marian Hossa but Alexei Ponikarovsky is the next best thing–available. With 19 goals and 41 points going into his Penguins debut, Ponikarovsky has already laid a solid foundation of work. Obviously the 6′ 4″ Ukrainian forward is not short on skill, as witnessed by his first two points in his first two games as a Penguin. The question though is what exactly will Ponikarovsky bring to the Penguins besides his big frame?
One thing that can be expected in Pittsburgh is another clever nickname. The “Poni Express”, as dubbed by the Steel city, should fit right in with other local aptly named super stars like Sid “the kid” and “Big” Ben. At least this name involves a little more intelligence than 3rd grade level rhyming or alliteration. Besides corny t-shirt sales, Ponikarovsky brings perhaps the only thing the Penguins were missing in last years playoff run–the Ryan Malone factor. Playing on a line with Evgeni Malkin, the newly acquired forward will get plenty of chances to crash the net and cash in much the same way Malone did. The Pittsburgh native Malone recorded a career high in points playing with Malkin in 2008, and did so with far less skill than Ponikarovsky; that should give you some sort of indicator as to what to expect from Ukraine Freight Train (much better than Poni Express).
Ponikarovsky may also bring some sort of chemistry to the power play. With a bottom ten power play percentage, the Penguins desperately need to upgrade the unit if they want to make a third consecutive trip to the Finals. Ponikarovsky will provide a much needed PP presence in front of the net, something Jordan Staal and Bill Guerin’s combined 8 power play goals clearly showed the Pens were missing.
Seeing as how Ponikarovsky is an unrestricted free agent, this trade was obviously made to give Pittsburgh a better post-season team. Penguins fans who would rather have Ray Whitney, expect Ponikarovsky to boost his numbers now that he is free to play his role instead of having to provide the offense for an entire team. Also, Whitney, who many thought was the top prospect on the market, only recorded three goals in 18 playoff games last year. Perhaps the deciding factor though was the Ponikarovsky’s defensive play. The new Penguin is a career +55 while playing for a Maple Leafs team that ranked 29th and 30th in goals against over the past two seasons.
Make no mistake, the Penguins acquired the top FA on the market not named Kovalchuk or Jokinen. However, if there is one knock on the former Maple Leaf it is that he does not use his body enough. The common consensus is that if Ponikarovsky would through his body around a little more he could be one of the most dangerous players in the conference. This most likely will not be a problem for the Russian sniper though, as the Penguins have three of the top 30 hitmen in the NHL.
Ultimately, Ponikarovsky’s finishing ability and net presence will allow the Penguins to keep pace with the Capitals offensively. The purpose of this trade was to allow Olympic goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to be the deciding factor should the Penguins meet Washington in the playoffs. As far as for what the Penguins gave up? Just remember that GM Ray Shero has made deadline moves to get the Penguins to the finals for the past two seasons. The players that the Penguins gave up in those trades have accounted for a total of 51 goals–not including playoffs, thats 63 less than Hossa, Guerin, and Pascal Dupuis. Also, Angelo Esposito has yet to play in an NHL game. Expect this trade to turn out no different.