May 3, 2012; Newark, NJ, USA; New Jersey Devils left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky (12) scores the game winning goal past Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov (30) during the first overtime period in game three of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals at the Prudential Center. The Devils defeated the Flyers 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE
With less than a week remaining until the floodgates to unrestricted free agency open on July 1st, we look at impending UFAs who could help the Sharks.
After solidifying their blueline by signing Brad Stuart to a 3-year, $10.8 million deal last week, the Sharks are left with just one area of concern on their roster heading into the 2012-13 season: their bottom six forward corps. We'll likely find out which of their restricted free agents the team opted to qualify later today but it seems like a safe bet that forwards Andrew Desjardins, Tommy Wingels and T.J. Galiardi will be among them and all three can slot into San Jose's third and fourth lines in the fall, although I'd personally like to see the team acquire enough talent that Galiardi is their 13th forward. Since the free agent market for centers is razor-thin (and casting Michal Handzus in that role again is a mistake the team can't afford to make), the Sharks should look to trade for a third-line pivot if they're unable to retain Dominic Moore. That means what they should primarily be looking for in free agency is help on the wings.
The failings of the Handzus-centered third line the Sharks used for most of last season (generally featuring Jamie McGinn and Torrey Mitchell) largely revolved around their inability to push the play forward. The trio spent far too much time chasing the puck in their own zone despite not starting their shifts there all that often and almost never being matched up against opposing teams' top six forwards. Not only did that result in them bleeding scoring chances and goals against, it also made the jobs of the Sharks' other lines that much more difficult, with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski frequently tasked with cleaning up their mess, forced to begin more of their shifts in San Jose's end of the rink than Todd McLellan may have preferred.
One free agent who could turn that around on his own is Alexei Ponikarovsky, last seen contributing to the New Jersey Devils' improbable Stanley Cup Final run. Ponikarovsky will likely join his sixth team in four seasons this summer but unlike your typical journeyman, he has some serious skill. With the exception of a poor 2010-11 season with the Kings, Ponikarovsky has finished first on his team in Relative Corsi, a measure of the extent to which a player improves his club's ability to generate offensive-zone puck possession, every year since 2007. In fact, only 16 forwards who have skated for at least 3000 5v5 minutes since '07 have outshot their opponents at even-strength at a better rate than Ponikarovsky over that span. In the process, the hulking 6'4" Ukranian winger has vastly improved almost everyone he's been placed on a line with as well. And he can finish too: Ponikarovsky was fourth on the Maple Leafs in points per 60 minutes of 5v5 hockey every season he spent in Toronto and finished eighth on the Devils by that measure this past season, including his stint with Carolina early in the year during which the Canes scored on just 4.2% of EV shots Ponikarovsky was on the ice for.
What would make those numbers less impressive in the eyes of a team looking at Ponikarovsky as a top-six option (and/or a team interested in employing him as a checker) is that he accomplished much of that playing sheltered minutes. Especially in Toronto, Ponikarovsky's coaches deployed him far more frequently in the offensive zone than the defensive end and usually had him out against below-average competition. That's not an issue for the Sharks, however, who would be signing Ponikarovsky to play on what should be a sheltered scoring line much like the one they ran late in 2010-11 with Pavelski, Mitchell and Kyle Wellwood. With the Thornton line taking on the toughs and Logan Couture the second-toughs, it's unlikely Ponikarovsky would be facing better opposing players than he has previously in his career and he probably won't be getting difficult zonestarts either, particularly if the Sharks are able to keep Daniel Winnik, Desjardins and Wingels together as a two-way fourth line. It does bear mentioning that Ponikarovsky was asked to handle a more defensive role this past year, starting a shade over 53% of his non-neutral 5v5 shifts in the defensive zone, and he still had a lot of success in terms of play-driving.
Although he isn't as pugnacious and abrasive as the Sharks' winger, Ponikarovsky's game isn't all that dissimilar to that of Ryane Clowe. Both players use their size as their greatest asset, protecting the puck along the boards at an elite level and working it into scoring areas to create chances. Like Clowe, Ponikarovsky doesn't contribute a whole lot on the penalty kill, a facet of the game the Sharks will no doubt look to address this offseason. However, it seems like that's more a factor of Ponikarovsky not receiving all that many shorthanded minutes throughout his career as his numbers when he's been called upon to play that role don't look too shabby. As an intelligent positional player in all three zones, it would stand to reason that Ponikarovsky could be passable on the kill although that's certainly not something that should be high on the list of reasons to target him.
Perhaps the most attractive thing about Ponikarovsky as a free agent is that depressed shooting percentages have taken a toll on his raw scoring numbers the past two seasons. Although he'll likely command a modest raise on the $1.5 million salary he made in 2011-12, it's unlikely his new contract will carry a cap hit of much more than $2 million or a term exceeding 2 years, granted it's difficult to predict what the market will look like this July with there essentially being no high-end forwards available outside of Zach Parise and Alexander Semin. Even if his percentages don't rebound, the Sharks will have added a dependable play-driving winger in Ponikarovsky and, along with Dominic Moore (or a similar center acquired via trade), the team would enter the season with a significantly better third line than the one they iced for the majority of last year.