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Ponikarovsky helps Kings "recover," but will he help them move forward?

July 27, 2010 |  8:17 pm

The Kings pursued Ilya Kovalchuk and were beaten out by the New Jersey Devils, though his contract was rejected by the NHL and is headed to an arbitration hearing that could put him back on the free-agent market.

The Kings made no offer to retain Alexander Frolov until they became desperate for goals and sniffed around him last week only to lose him to a one-year, $3-million contract with the New York Rangers. “Not an irrational response,” Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi acknowledged.

And so Plan C — as in “consolation” — came to pass Tuesday when the Kings signed left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky for one year at $3 million plus a $200,000 signing bonus.

This is a lateral step and not a leap forward, an emergence from limbo to grab the best second-tier player available and compensate for losing the frustrating but undeniably talented Frolov and his two 30-goal seasons.

Ponikarovsky, 30, has scored more than 20 goals in four of the last five seasons for some bad Toronto Maple Leafs teams. But given a reprieve when he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the trading deadline, he didn’t distinguish himself, scoring two goals in 16 regular-season games and one goal in 11 playoff games.

He’s not awful. You don’t score 20 goals in the NHL by being incompetent. Inconsistent? Yes. He scored six goals in 15 games in January and only two in his final 21 games.

Soft? So his reputation says despite his 6-foot-4, 220-pound build. But Lombardi likes his size enough to have pursued him at the trade deadline — and considered Ponikarovsky the best consolation prize 27 days into a free-agent market that was thin on forwards to begin with.

“So much time and energy went into this Kovalchuk thing that you’re exposed. Because it dragged on for so long and arguably has continued to drag on, we weren’t addressing other needs. It was impossible anyway,” Lombardi said. “And then you get into the problem that we are in a free-agency mode and everything is tied to this guy that you’re clearly telling the marketplace that everybody else is second fiddle.”

He said the Kings had “recovered” from losing Frolov by signing Ponikarovsky.

“Bringing back that M.O. was critical because the Kovalchuk thing was too much of an all-or-nothing scenario and I don’t think that was where we need to be,” Lombardi said.

“The loss of Frolov, that’s a hole. So you look at Fro and maybe he could have done more things but he’s still a good player. I wanted to bring back a player of that caliber and quite frankly it was only Fro and Ponikarovsky and that was it. There was a drop-off there in terms of getting size. . . .

“I think the deal works. It’s a one-year deal. If he performs we can extend him. And he should be motivated.”

Lombardi sees him as a support player who will help the core young players continue to progress.
“Those kids took a step and they need to take another step. But I don’t want to make the framework around them less,” he said. “We lost Frolov, [Randy] Jones, [Sean] O’Donnell. So the goal is to put around these kids a framework that still allows them to be successful but as I’ve always said, ‘It’s your team. Take control of this team,’ as they started to do last year.”

Lombardi said he’s not done yet. Adding a defenseman to replace O’Donnell and Jones is likely but the replacements could be determined by competition during training camp among the Kings’ defense prospects. If no one stands out, he might have to make a trade.

“It’s safe to say that I am looking at one other thing I’d like to try and do. However, our fall-back position is if we don’t find what I’m looking for I feel a lot better that we got at least the forward because I don’t see an option on the forward,” he said.

“Whether Ponikarovsky or Frolov, that was the first most important piece to me. I am looking at something but I don’t feel the urgency I felt because of looking at our reserve list where, you say, ‘Oh, that element isn’t there.’ ”

If the still-unscheduled arbitration hearing before the still-unchosen arbitrator puts Kovalchuk back on the market the Kings can pursue him and use some of the $13 million in salary cap space they have for next season. Their offer of $80 million over 15 years might have been approved because it didn’t taper off at the end as drastically as the Devils’ offer, which would have paid Kovalchuk $550,000 for each of the last five years.

In the meantime they have Ponikarovsky, a likable guy who said he feels comfortable here because he has family in Los Angeles. He said he’s happy to help on the power-play and penalty-killing units and is eager to use his size and creativity to boost the Kings’ production.

“I know they have a pretty young and fast and exciting team,” he said. “It’s a nice mix and I’m just going to try to bring my game and help the team win.”

And see if he can become more valuable than the usual consolation prize.

--Helene Elliott