On Wednesday night, the New Jersey Devils brought back a familiar face in 32-year-old forward Alexei Ponikarovsky by sending a 2014 fourth-round pick and a 2013 seventh-round pick to the Winnipeg Jets. Devils fans likely remember “Poni” from his role in the Stanley Cup Finals run New Jersey made last season. While the signing of Ponikarovsky comes with the news that forward Dainius Zubrus may be out for a long time, there are positives that come with this situation.
Despite the exploratory surgery to Zubrus’ wrist, leaving him on injured-reserve for the time being, the New Jersey Devils have quietly put together a deep team. While their “no-name” defense and their old goalies continue to frustrate the opposition, the New Jersey system is rounded out by four lines of high energy and aggressive fore-checking forwards that get it done night after night as a committee. There are many teams in the NHL that have two top lines that are extremely dangerous, while the remaining two lines are filled out by specialty players and fighters. The Devils have gone a different route for the past couple of years. With the departure of Zach Parise, the Devils have needed an increase in production from every line. First-round pick Stefan Matteau has done a nice job filling in on the first line beside Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk; a line that will no doubt start to click as they have been creating more opportunities each game. The second line has the 5th highest points scorer in the NHL (as of February 14th) in David Clarkson and one of the best passers in the game in Patrick Elias, not to mention the former rookie sensation, Adam Henrique. The third line, known by most Devils fans as the infamous “fourth line” from last year, has continued to provide the energy and timely goals that they brought to last year’s playoff run via Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier. The fourth line, featuring up and coming young players such as Jacob Josefson and Bobby Butler, seems to change more and more, and will likely be where Ponikarovsky starts out as he works his way back into the Devils’ lineup.
So, what does Ponikarovsky bring as he most likely starts out on the fourth line? First, “Poni” has proven to be a 20-goal scorer four times in his career. Having a player with that scoring ability on the fourth line is the mark of an extremely deep team. At 6’4” and 225 lbs, “Poni” is no pushover; he brings some much-needed size to a small Devils lineup. The combination of scoring potential and size perfectly fills the void left by Zubrus, 6’5” and 225 lbs, who has actually scored 20 or more goals only twice in his career. Ponikarovsky is also familiar with the Devils’ system, which has not changed since last year. He can be put out on the ice in any situation, giving head coach Peter DeBoer a familiar face to work with at any point in the game. DeBoer has been putting just about everyone out on the ice in every situation, including third and fourth liners on both the power play (Bernier and Butler) and penalty kill (Gionta and Josefson). There is no doubt Ponikarovsky will be used similarly.
As the Devils prepare to move on without their top-six forward for the foreseeable future, there seems to be little concern that the four lines being put out on the ice can’t get the job done. As DeBoer continues to utilize every line throughout the game, Ponikarovsky will likely jump right back in, as if it were May of 2012. It is tough to predict where he will land in the lineup, but since Loktionov was sent back down the AHL rather than Matteau, it seems unlikely he will be put on the first line in the near future. Regardless of where he is placed in the lineup, his knowledge of the Devils’ system means he should provide an immediate boost. Welcome back, “Poni”.