The Ukraine Train Alexei Ponikarovsky Headed to Pittsburgh

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Another year, another busy trade deadline period for Ray Shero and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A day after trading a second round pick in the upcoming draft to Florida for defenseman Jordan Leopold, Shero was at it again, this time with offense in mind. After the conclusion of Tuesday night’s victory over the Ryan Miller-less Buffalo Sabres, the Penguins announced the addition of Toronto left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky.

But at what price?

Veteran defenseman Martin Skoula and 21-year-old prospect Luca Caputi will be packing their bags and heading north to Canada.

The initial thought was that Maple Leafs’ General Manager Brian Burke wanted at least a second round pick for the Ukraine Train but as the Penguins had already spend theirs on defense, Shero chose not to hand out a first rounder.

Caputi makes up the brunt of the deal, and Skoula was essentially the 8th man on the Pittsburgh blue line and needed to be moved to get under the salary cap.

But enough of the blabber.

The Penguins reeled in a mighty fine winger that will most likely be used on Evgeni Malkin’s left wing.

The Maple Leafs received a talented prospect that only further aids their youth movement.

For a moment, let’s think about how this now effects the Eastern Conference playoff race and the Penguins for the rest of the season. First, the negatives. What are the cons about the trade?

First, the Penguins are obviously giving up a very talented young player that surely had a future in the organization. Along with Eric Tangradi, Caputi was considered the best offensive prospect in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and played good hockey in his time with the senior club.

The Penguins have now added yet another soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, bringing the total up to eight players who will complete their contracts in July.

The loss of Skoula, while may not seem extremely large, does have implications on the playoff race. When they won the Cup last year, there were eight NHL-caliber defensemen on the roster. Now with the loss of Skoula, that number is cut to seven, with the odd man out currently being Jay McKee.

Of course, there’s interest in him as well and he may not even be around come 3pm on Wednesday.

The trade has little negative impact on the short term, as Caputi wasn’t likely to play again for the Penguins this year and Skoula was a healthy scratch nearly every night. But in the long run, the true deciding points will be if Shero can resign Ponikarovsky this offseason and how good of a player does Caputi eventually become?

But there are two sides to every story, so let’s look at the other side.

What are some pros? At 6’4″ and 220-some pounds, Ponikarovsky brings both immense size and skill that the Penguins have not had on the wings since Upper St. Clair native Ryan Malone left in the summer of 2008.

The big winger is superb and playing down low and getting to the front of the net. He also represents a finisher that will be a major asset to the success of Malkin over the last month. Truth be told, almost anyone would have served as an improvement to what the Ruslan Fedotenko has provided this season (yes, he had a good game against Buffalo). But Ponikarovsky is not only a guy that has scored 20-plus goals playing for bad teams but a player that can also dish the puck.

But put aside his scoring for a minute.

The biggest reason that Shero liked him enough to make a trade over several arguably more gifted wingers, example Ray Whitney, is the fact that Ponikarovsky also plays very solid two-way hockey, which is necessary for a team that attacks like the Penguins do.

That doesn’t mean we’ll see him on the penalty kill or on a checking line any time soon, but it always helps to have a guy who can back-check well if a turnover is committed.

In the salary cap era, numbers also have to be considered. For the remainder of the season, Ponikarovsky’s cap hit is at $447,000. For a player of his caliber, extremely reasonable.

In terms of losing Caputi, remember a guy by the name of Angelo Esposito?

A piece of the infamous Marian Hossa trade, Esposito had tons of promise as a young player, as many felt that he could have been a Top Five draft pick but fell to the Penguins. But in hindsight, Esposito has still never played an NHL game and while it’s still too early to call him a complete bust, he’s certainly closer to the bust than a boom.

Does Ponikarovsky have the ability to push the Penguins over the top? He absolutely adds another dimension to the team that wasn’t there earlier and his presence should be worth it’s weight in gold to Malkin.

Time will tell. The Ukraine Train should make his Black and Vegas Gold debut against the New York Rangers on Thursday.


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