IN FOCUS: ALEXEI PONIKAROVSKY
Scribe: You can’t teach size and can’t beat speed. Alexei Ponikarovsky has both in spades. Focusing on him for the past seven games made me respect why his prior teams and hockey experts in general had such high expectations of this left winger. He comes in a great package and all everyone wants to know is why he doesn’t it put up 40 goals, 90 points and tear the league up. You may find out when you read more.
Surly: Ponikarovsky showcased speed, tenacity and skill, both offensively and defensively. From what I have seen, his biggest strength is how he reads the play. He has a sense for where the puck is going, be it through shot or pass and, he takes the correct angle accordingly. This is both a forechecking and defensive asset, though as we break down the other facets of Poni’s game and how he utilizes them, it favors one more than the other.
ON THE OFFENSIVE SIDE
Surly: When Alexei fires a shot, as a generally rule, there will be a rebound. Why? Because this behemoth can shoot the puck HARD. Even a wrister from the blueline carries enough velocity to give a goalie more than they can handle in one try. His accuracy is not spectacular, but he does not suffer from “high and wide” syndrome either. When he shoots his objective is to get the puck on net and create a rebound. He is more likely to shoot when there is traffic and to pass, or drive, when he has a clear lane to the net.
Right before we began our focus on Ponikarovsky, Terry Murray called him out to hold onto the puck longer. This was right on the money. In the first game we honed in on him (vs Carolina) Poni took the coach’s comment straight to heart. When he holds onto the puck through the neutral zone with his speed, he backs off the defenders as well as anyone on the team. The downside, which is really more truly just his role on the shutdown line, is that when he does this he opts to get the puck in deep rather than make a move at the blueline. This is not a flaw in his game at all, rather a strength, but it does not always create the most opportune scoring chances.
Scribe: Our boy has great hands. When the puck lands on his stick, he makes no mistakes. The goal he scored against Colorado was on the backhand and he didn’t hesitate after the defenseman fumbled the puck. The fact he read the developing play by Simmonds to get between the hash marks shows good instincts. How about the goal against the Stars? Very similar and nearly identical in execution to the Avalanche goal. The goal in Dallas was also on a rebound, this time from the goaltender. He read the play and knew to go to the net when Simmonds had the puck. He put in a backhand without hesitation.
Does this mean Poni is going to score 40? 30? No, not unless his role changes and that is where I am most pleased with his offensive game. On that third line, he stays parallel with Simmonds and feeds off his moves. He doesn’t try to do anything spectacular through the neutral zone. When the play crosses the opposing team’s blue line and Simmonds has the puck, Poni is ready for the pass or rebound. When the play goes to the boards, Poni follows and I have seen him on many plays (which appears to be a set play) be the first man in to press the defender so Simmonds can pick up the puck. This is what we missed at left wing last season.
ON THE DEFENSIVE END
Scribe: The game against Dallas on October 28 was his best game, not just because he scored a goal but because I saw what he is capable of on defense. Poni’s defensive game is back checking, positional and along the boards. In that game, he showed me that he understands that a forward never leaves the zone without the puck, makes the safe play to get the puck out when there is no clear cut lane down the middle and, when necessary, skates the puck into the neutral zone.
Surly: What I have noticed the most about Ponikarovsky is his shot blocking ability. He knows how to get in the shooting lanes and is willing to block shots in any manner possible. Sliding forward, sliding backward, diving each and every direction, squeezing the legs, dropping to his knees, you name it, he does it. His read of the opposing shooter and subsequent reaction and decision making is practically on par with a goaltender.
He also utilizes this to great effect in getting in and blocking passing lanes. This is the aspect of the game where his hockey sense is the most apparent. He turned a corner defensively in the game against Colorado on 10/23 when he found his groove with Simmonds and Handzus. The change was Poni’s spacing. Whereas in the first several games Poni positioned himself close to Simmonds and Zus to support in puck battles, he quickly learned that his linemates win most of the puck battles they get in on their own. Accordingly, I saw Poni start to drift further away, allowing him to get behind defenders and open up options for Simmonds and Zus when they came away with the puck off the boards. I put this in the defensive side because most of this line’s defense is played by cycling in the offensive zone, keeping top lines away the Kings’ net. However this also opened up his offensive game as well and was the reason for his two goals against Colorado and Dallas.
Surly: There was a play, I believe in the second period of the Carolina game on 10/20, where Ponikarovsky won a puck battle at his own blueline and though it looked like he had no room to skate, he absolutely blew by the Carolina defender and generated an odd-man rush purely with his size and speed.
Speed kills and in Poni’s case he uses it effectively in a north-south manner when defending. The problem becomes his hesitance to consistently do what Murray asked, which is hold onto the puck longer. While he often uses his linemates to great effectiveness, he can become too focused at times on moving the puck laterally through the neutral zone. For other players with other skill sets this is often the best option. However with Poni’s size and speed, he would be well served to take the puck straight up the ice himself.
Scribe: This is where Ponikarovsky needs the most improvement. In each game, he seemed shy about skating the puck through the neutral zone and over the blue line even when the lane was there. I don’t believe it’s an unwillingness to take the potential hit or lead the rush but rather a conscious mindset of always being defensively aware. He seems focused on the defensive part of the game even when on the transition and breakouts. Poni even fell back a few times in the New Jersey game when the Kings had the puck and drove through the neutral zone. It’s hard to put too much blame on that style of play. If we asked him to take the wing on the first line, I don’t believe he would fit but that is exactly why he is so well placed with Simmonds and Handzus. He actually frees those two to take a more offensive role.
Scribe: Ponikarovsky hits well enough to separate the man from the puck but not more. He doesn’t hit to rattle teeth or put players through the boards. He also stays away from the open ice contact. Without exception so far, every hit I have observed has been along the boards, especially with two to four players fighting to get the puck free. Why not hit harder when he has the size and leverage to do it? I believe it’s because that type of hit is unnecessary. Once again, defense first. Why take the man out, risk getting yourself out of position when you can strike and retrieve the puck? The safe play. The safe hit.
Surly: Poni’s best physical game came against Dallas, where he was all over the ice in general. While Poni does not destroy anyone out there, he uses his size to great effectiveness along the boards. His positioning helps along his physical game in that when he enters a puck battle on the boards, he hits and spins in one motion to put himself between the opposing player and the puck. No complaints here as we don’t need him to be a wrecking ball, just a force.
Surly: I see no laziness in Poni’s game. Hesitation at times, but never a lack of effort. I’d be interested to know how vocal, if at all, he is in the locker room and on the bench. He seems to be a quiet, lead by example type. His willingness to sacrifice his body in blocking shots regularly speaks immensely towards his character.
Scribe: Tough to measure. He skates hard. He doesn’t coast. I have seen a steady improvement from game to game. His last three were particularly good. He has a lunch pale mentality and that is just fine with me.
GIVE ME MORE
Scribe: (1) He has a good shot, both slap and wrist. I want that unleashed a lot more. That “shooting” mentality coach Murray refers to needs to come out of Poni’s pores. He has passed up some great shooting lanes and chose pass instead. (2) Keep that puck on the stick longer, especially through the neutral zone and on the attack. The safe defensive mindset works well but when the other team is on its heels and Poni has the lane, he must take it. This may come with time as he grows more comfortable with Simmonds and Zeus and becomes more confident that the defenseman have his back.
Surly: The only two things I would like to see Poni do more consistently is shoot and to carry the puck through the neutral zone. I wouldn’t call these weaknesses, but rather areas where he can improve from good to dominant.
Surly: I vaguely followed Ponikarovsky before he was a King. Its almost impossible to be an NHL fan and not be beaten over the head with anything to do with his former team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The criticisms I remember were that he is hot and cold in the scoring department, going on long tears and longer droughts. I have read that his physical game leaves something to be desired, which I can not agree with based off what I have seen. Whereas Poni has always been expected to be a top 6 scoring threat throughout his career, he seems to have found his calling on the Kings. Alexei Ponikarovsky makes me never want to question Dean Lombardi again when he uses the often frustrating term, “right fit”.
Scribe: I like his progression. He has much more to give. His game has not fully developed, that much appears certain. It will be most interesting to see what we write about him by the middle of December.
(all photos by Kasey Spatz)