Ponikarovsky reflects on his Leafs past

LANCE HORNBY , QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:34 PM ET

OSHAWA - At least they can say they went out as winners.

Those 29th place Maple Leafs who might have made their last public appearance Sunday here at the GM Centre were given a nice round of applause as they departed an open charity practice, unsure of whether they’ll still be wearing blue and white for Tuesday night’s game against Carolina.

Alexei Ponikarovsky showed some exit flair in particular, ending the shoot-out finale with a nice backhand deke and delighting many in the crowed of 5,800 by firing Leaf t-shirts into the seats as an encore. But he had to catch himself from speaking in the past tense when asked to evaluate his 10-year Leafs career to date.

“I wouldn’t start talking about that right now,” he said. “When (a trade) is going to happen, we’ll talk about it. Right now, I’m focusing on preparing myself for our next stretch of games.

“Whatever happens will happen. Guys were just having fun today, tripping each other on the ice. Everyone seems to be in a good mood.”

But behind his smile, you know he’s reflecting on 10 years in the organization, the longest tenured Leafs forward for the moment. From life in Ukraine in the days of the Iron Curtain to being drafted by the Leafs, two years toil in St. John’s and eight in Toronto, this wouldn’t be an easy parting.

His two children were born here and he became a Canadian citizen in 2007. It all changed for Ponikarovsky on June 27, 1998, thousands of miles from where the Leafs announced his name at their draft table in Buffalo.

“I was playing for Moscow Dynamo and my agent called and said: ‘You’ve been drafted.’ But with the time change in Russia it was late at night and it wasn’t until the next morning when someone brought me a newspaper (that he got details). I knew where Toronto was on the map, but not that they were going to draft me.

“I remember when Alexei Zhitnik left (Kiev in 1991) for Red Army and went from Red Army to the NHL (with Los Angeles). We had the same coach and he was the guy I looked up to. I thought at the time: ‘Wow, a guy is going to play in the NHL.’ At that time, it was a little bit awkward. Not a lot of Russians (were allowed to play here).”

Ponikarovsky, with steady 20-goal potential, has not yet turned 30 and is very affordable for contending teams entering the playoff stretch. A late suitor could be the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are a point out of the playoffs in the East and looking for scoring on the flanks. The Leafs and Lightning made a significant deal this time last year.

There is also some interest in Leafs forwards Lee Stempniak and Wayne Primeau, as well as defenceman Garnet Exelby, all in the same contract boat. Sunday was also Tomas Kaberle’s first day back from the Olympics and that meant a new round of speculation that the long-serving defenceman will be asked to beg off his no-trade clause and have a say in a new destination, rather than wait until summer when a window opens for Burke to deal him anywhere.

“Nothing has changed on my side,” Kaberle said.

But life is rapidly changing for the Leafs as Burke looks at the three days leading to 3 p.m. Wednesday as the next big chance to put his stamp on the team. In one respect, he already stole the thunder from his fellow GMs last month, by acquiring defenceman Dion Phaneuf and goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, two of the best available at their position.

And just because he’s talking about being busy in the next three days doesn’t mean his desired dance partner will co-operate. Burke said prior to the break that he wasn’t happy with the offers he was getting for his UFAs and might go the traditional route of waiting until the last couple of hours on Wednesday to “drive a harder bargain.”

Buyers and sellers around the NHL drew the battle lines in the past few days.

“Make no mistake, there will be no fire sale,” opined Florida Panthers’ GM Randy Sexton.

“Aggressive would be a good way to describe it,” Tampa Bay’s Brian Lawton said of his approach.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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