Alexei Ponikarovksy played 477 games for the Leafs amassing 318 points. Ponikarovksy was never the best player on the team, however he became beloved by Leafs fans for his 200 foot game and 20 goal consistency. Ponikarovsky made his NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators on January 10, 2001. Drafted in the fourth round, the Kiev, Ukraine native scored his first point in the following game against Phoenix. At 6-4, 225 pounds, Ponikarovsky was a hulking winger that was strong on both ends of the ice. With advanced stats, it is clear Ponikarovsky was not only better than he has been given credit for, but his career also should have extended longer.
“I wanted to play for the national team or to make it on the first team in what is now the KHL. Back then it was a different league. That was the plan, but then everything collapsed and everybody separated from Russia. Everything became more difficult because the Ukrainian government didn’t pay too much attention to sports. Especially hockey. Nobody, the coaches or anyone, was getting paid.”
He left home at the age of 15 for a chance to play for Dynamo Moscow. Ponikarovsky spent two years with Dynamo Moscow’s junior team before being drafted by the Maple Leafs in the fourth round. Dynamo Moscow would win the Russian Superleague Championship in 2000 and Ponikarovsky joined the Maple Leafs the following season splitting time with the big club and the AHL.
Ponikarovsky’s first full season came during the 2003-2004 season, averaging 11 minutes a night and putting up 28 points. After the lockout, his game would continue to grow.
Ponikarovksy could score in many ways. He had a decent shot.
Or he would use his size to his advantage.
On occasion, he’d show a little bit of finesse.
And even manage to score while falling.
From 2007-2010, Poni, as he is affectionately referred to, was a dominant force. Take a look at his advanced stats at 5 on 5 and where he ranked in the league among forwards (min. 2000 minutes)
- 1.85 Primary Points/60 ranked 19th, similar to Jarome Iginla, and Rick Nash
- 2.28 Points/60 ranked 32nd, similar to Vincent Lecavalier, and Thomas Vanek
- 54.26 CF% ranked 34th
- 55.06 xGF% ranked 30th
- 4.87 Relative CF% and 6.23 Relative xGF% both ranked 17th
- 56.76 Scoring Chances For% ranked 19th and a 9.28 Relative Scoring Chances/60 ranked 9th
To put it simply, Poni was a beast at 5 on 5. He likely would have gotten more points had the Leafs PP not been horrendous. From 2005-2010, the Leafs powerplay percentage ranked inside the top 25 only once (and that was 24th in 05-06!)
In addition, the two lines he played most with during this time period were very adept at getting pucks towards the net. In 2008-2009, the Stajan-Antropov-Ponikarovsky line had a CF/60 of 73.25. There are only 12 line combos with a higher CF/60 (min. 250 minutes) since 2007, including the Stajan-Kessel-Ponikarovksy line one year later.
Ponikarovsky would be traded on March 2nd to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Luca Caputi and Martin Skoula. He would go on to play three more seasons splitting time with the Kings, Hurricanes, Devils, and the Jets. Ponikarovsky’s offensive production fell once he got to LA. This is likely for two reasons: Age related decline and less ice time. Ponikarovsky averaged almost four minutes less with the Kings than he did with the Leafs and Penguins combined.
As Ponikarovsky got older, his defensive game did not deteriorate. Here’s his relative CA/60 and relative xGA/60 during his last three seasons and his HERO Chart for the 2012 season:
It’s not like he was playing on bad teams leading to his CA/60 relative to be boosted. The average CF% of the teams he was on was 51.19%. With declining offensive totals, Poni could have been a useful bottom six winger on a lot of teams for at least a couple more seasons. Providing a strong defensive game, with a net front presence, it is a bit baffling how he was unable to get a new contract. Ultimately, Ponikarovsky would take his game to the KHL, joining Devils teammate Ilya Kovalchuk at St. Petersburg SKA. After three seasons, the big Ukrainian forward is playing with Red Star Kunlun.
Alexei Ponikarovsky wasn’t the best player on the ice nor was he a star in the league. He played 678 games and finished with 323 points. Poni gave it his all night in and night out. With the prevalence of advanced stats, it is apparent that Ponikarovsky was an effective top line forward during his prime and a strong bottom six winger after he left Toronto. Alexei Ponikarovsky could not only drive play, but he also excellent in his own end. He gave many Leafs fan many memories, especially this with his buddy Nik Antropov.