Patience with Ponikarovsky pays off

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:22 AM ET

In the realm of hockey prospects, there are no hard and fast rules. No timetables.

On the one hand, you have a Tomas Kaberle, whose selection was buried deep in the 1996 NHL draft, yet two years later he was a fixture on the Maple Leafs defence and has remained there since, no special handling required.

On the other hand is an Alex Ponikarovsky, a player with obvious physical attributes who has required plenty of patience. He was drafted in 1998 but only in the last couple of years has the big Ukrainian winger begun to deliver on that promise.

Judging by the way Ponikarovsky has bolted out of the gate this season, the reward for all that patient nurturing by the Leafs organization could be rather large. At the very least, they may have finally found the long-sought quality winger for captain Mats Sundin.

With 19 points in 16 games this year, Ponikarovsky has become an important piece in the Maple Leafs puzzle. After years of speculation that he could be more than he was, suddenly he is everything the Leafs could have hoped for.

Against the Canadiens on Saturday night, he earned only one assist, but may have been the best player on the ice, spearheading the Leafs forecheck and burning the Montreal defence all evening with his speed and strength.

"He has a lot more confident and he's a bull," defenceman Bryan McCabe said. "When he goes wide I don't think anybody can stop him in this league. He has been showing that the last week or so."

While the strict enforcement of the rule book has opened up the game for small, skilled players, it has also done wonders for powerful, strong skaters like Ponikarovsky as well. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he is a serious load for any defenceman.

"I think we saw it a little bit last year," said Mats Sundin, recovering from a partially torn elbow ligament. "The last 20 games of last season, he started to use his size. He has got a great shot and he's just gotten more confident.

"You can't stop him. He's too strong. With the new rules, you're not allowed to put a hand on the guy like that. I'll tell you what, it's easy to see he's more comfortable and more confident."

Ponikarovsky acknowledges he went through an extensive adjustment coming to North America but he has become more at home in recent seasons. This year, with a new atmosphere that has accompanied coach Paul Maurice into the Leafs locker room, Ponikarovsky has blossomed.

"I've been feeling comfortable for a couple of years now," he said.

"But maybe now the big difference is that I've got more ice time and more opportunities to show my self, that helps too."

Yesterday's workout, coming just 14 hours after the Leafs fourth consecutive win and seventh in eight games, was a gruelling session that featured a full half-hour of high-tempo skating drills at the end.

"We're playing a different style now and everything has changed around here this year," Ponikarovsky said. "The way we practise, the attitude in the room have all changed. I think the results speak for themselves. I think it's a change for the better.

"We have a young team and we can skate and it's our goal to outwork the other team every game."

Maurice doesn't know anything about the enigmatic Ponikarovsky who confounded fans and others within the organization who were waiting for him to realize his potential.

All the new Leaf coach knows is that he has a gem on his hands.

"The thing that I noticed when I first arrived is how powerful he is in all areas ... off-ice and on-ice," Maurice said.

"On the ice, he gives the puck back when he's done with it. He has that skilled. He's just so big and strong offensively.

"Things left for him (to improve on) are to develop more confidence and maybe a bit more of a shooter's mentality. He has got such a great shot. He just has to get the confidence that he's the shooter when he gets the puck."

In Sundin's absence, Nik Antropov has stepped in with Ponikarovsky and centre Kyle Wellwood the past couple of games and the Leafs have responded with solid victories over the Boston Bruins and Montreal.

"Those are important memories for a club, an internal memory that we can survive and expect to win when we have important people go down," Maurice said.

Such are the benefits of patience.


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