In Praise of Alexei Ponikarovsky

Mark MakuchCorrespondent IApril 27, 2009

TORONTO - MARCH 27: Alexei Ponikarovski #23 of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks for the puck during the game against the Carolina Hurricanes at the Air Canada Centre on March 27, 2007 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo By Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

I have to admit that I used to bash Alexei Ponikarovsky. "Doesn't use his size!" "Misses too many chances!" "Never able to elevate his game!" If there was anyone the Leafs should trade, if you asked me, it was him.

Until this year.

Let's face it: Ponikarovsky will never be a star scoring machine. He's basically a 20-plus goal scorer and has proven that the last four years, along with a consistent 12 percent shooting accuracy. He did come through with career numbers, driven by a big increase in assists (up to 38 from his next highest of 24 in 06-07).

But what was most impressive to me was how he emerged after the departure of Nik Antropov. Instead of wilting and fading, as many suspected he would, he rose to the occasion. In the remaining 18 games after the trade deadline, he had 22 points, with two four-point games. He ended the year as a six-plus player, the only Leaf forward to be a plus-player (call-ups notwithstanding) this season. He also provided critical leadership to his Russian line mates Grabovski and Kulemin, who became much better defensive players by the end of the year.

What emerged for me was a very smart two-way player, who was also capable of putting up some unexpectedly decent numbers, and who could be a leader, too.

As the Leafs turn the corner on their rebuilding phase, the Kulemin-Grabovski-Ponikarovsky line looks to be very much a keeper. He's fast, smart, defensively capable, and has enough skill to hurt you. They are a bona fide NHL second line, and together cost less than Jason Blake's salary. For a team that had no real top six forwards at the start of the year, that is huge progress. And much of the credit for that progress should be Ponikarovski's.

Wilson and Burke still have their work cut out for them. Only a monster draft move by Burke or some crafty free-agent signings will get the Leafs a true top line. But the signs are there that this team is moving in the right direction, with Ponikarovski as a key driver. Once a classic underachiever, he is now a much more valuable player.

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