Poni rides off to Pittsburgh

TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:11 AM ET

Alexei Ponikarovsky’s career as a Maple Leaf was over long before the end was evident.

The second-longest serving Leaf after defenceman Tomas Kaberle, who played in his 800th career game, was a healthy scratch on Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, and because of the Olympic break, has not suited up for Toronto since Feb. 12, when the Leafs lost in St. Louis.

During the third period, it was revealed that a deal was in place to send Ponikarovsky to the Pittsburgh Penguins for rookie forward Luca Caputi, who has a goal and an assist in four games this season.

The Los Angeles Kings and Nashville Predators had been interested in Ponikarovsky as well.

Caputi, a Toronto native who played in the OHL for Mississauga and Niagara, has 23 goals and 24 assists in 54 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder has the ability to be a solid power forward, but he is a project. All that was keeping the trade from becoming official, apparently, was the requirement of the Penguins to clear cap space.

General manager Brian Burke, who started to re-shape the Leafs a month ago when he traded Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Ian White, Jamal Mayers, Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala for Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, was thought to looking for a draft pick and a propsect in return.

Though there had been some thought that Ponikarovsky had injured a knee during practice on Monday, Leafs senior vice-president of hockey operations David Nonis said Ponikarovsky was not hurt and was a healthy scratch.

“We’re protecting our asset,” Nonis said. “There is nothing done at this point, but you don’t want a situation where he gets hurt and you are out of options.

“If we get a deal that makes sense for any of our players, we would do it, but at this point we don’t have that. We do not have a completed deal for Pony or any of our players.”

Ponikarovsky, who had several cups of coffee with Toronto before he became a full-time regular in the 2003-04, has 19 goals and 22 assists in 61 games and is a nice pickup for the Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup champions. The 29-year-old is destined for free agency this summer.

As of Tuesday night, the Leafs had not asked Kaberle to waive his no-trade clause, but Burke was taking the temperature of interest around the NHL.

Wayne Primeau, in a fourth-line role, and Lee Stempniak, also could have new homes before the NHL trade deadline hits at 3 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon. The Buffalo Sabres might be a destination for Stempniak, a native of West Seneca, N.Y.

Garnet Exelby has made his interest in a possible trade known, and if Burke could get even a low draft pick for Jeff Finger, the latter would be gone.

There was a report out of Chicago that the Leafs were interested in Blackhawks goaltender Cristobal Huet, but it was not clear where that interest would be rooted. However, if Jean-Sebastien Giguere continues to play as poorly as he did on Tuesday against Carolina, perhaps goaltending is more of a pressing need than originally thought.

Ponikarovsky has been asked about the possibility of being traded for weeks and said earlier on Tuesday that he would accept his fate.

“Things are happening and if management has decided I’ll be going somewhere, you have to respect that,” Ponikarovsky said. “It’s always like this when you get close to trade deadline, but I can’t say I am getting anxious. It’s part of the job.”

If Burke manages to trade some of the others for picks and/or prospects, the Leafs are going to be an awfully ugly club to watch for the remainder of the 2009-10 season. After Phil Kessel, Phaneuf and Kaberle, there is not a lot, and Burke will have no choice but to make significant changes this summer.

terry.koshan@sunmedia.ca


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