LOS ANGELES, Calif. - The Los Angeles Kings signed left-winger Alexei Ponikarovsky to a one-year contract Tuesday after losing Alexander Frolov to the New York Rangers and falling short in their pursuit of Ilya Kovalchuk.
The Kings gave a US$3 million deal to Ponikarovsky, who scored 21 goals last season with Toronto and Pittsburgh. The longtime Maple Leafs forward has scored at least 20 goals in four of the past five seasons.
"I hope it's going to be a long-term relationship after one year," Ponikarovsky said. "This was the first time I ever experienced the free agency process, and so it was both exciting and tough. I'm happy it's over, and that I know the team I'm going to be playing for next season. It's a young team playing great hockey. I've followed the team, how they play and where they are at, so I know it's going to be an exciting year."
Yet Ponikarovsky, who also gets a $200,000 signing bonus, is a consolation prize for the Kings, who spent three weeks attempting to sign Kovalchuk before the Russian forward chose a $102 million, 17-year deal with the New Jersey Devils.
During that pursuit, the Kings lost their chance to re-sign Frolov, a dependable forward in Los Angeles for the past half-decade.
After making the playoffs last spring for the first time since 2002, Los Angeles had been eager to become a serious Stanley Cup contender by signing an elite goal-scorer, but Patrick Marleau re-signed with San Jose before free agency began, and Kovalchuk wouldn't take anything less than top dollar.
The Kings and Kovalchuk had significant mutual interest, with the Russian Olympian making a two-day visit to their training complex in El Segundo, Calif.
But Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi said he wouldn't overspend to sign Kovalchuk at a price that would prevent the Kings from re-signing their homegrown core of talent over the next several years. Cornerstone defencemen Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson will be ready for significant raises in the next year, along with agitating forward Wayne Simmonds.
Kovalchuk eventually agreed to the longest deal in NHL history, but the contract with the Devils is headed to arbitration after the league rejected it, saying it circumvented the salary cap. Lombardi has said he would get back into the bidding if the New Jersey contract is thrown out and Kovalchuk is back on the market, although such a scenario is highly unlikely.
The Kings initially made little effort to re-sign Frolov, who managed just 19 goals last season—falling short of 20 for the first time since his rookie year. Los Angeles made a belated pursuit after talks with Kovalchuk finally fell through, but Frolov chose a fresh start with the Rangers on Tuesday, agreeing to a $3 million deal.
The deal for Ponikarovsky still leaves the Kings roughly $10 million under the NHL salary cap, but with relatively few significant free agents remaining in the NHL pool. Los Angeles also has discussed trades for a top scorer with several teams.
Ponikarovsky, a native of Ukraine, is a solid two-way forward who handled a significant offensive role with the woeful Leafs while playing at least 66 games in each of the past six seasons. He scored a career-high 61 points for Toronto in 2008-09, including 23 goals.
The former fourth-round draft pick played in 11 post-season games with the Penguins last spring, recording five points.
"I'm six-foot-four and 230 pounds, and I know what my game is," Ponikarovsky said. "I have to use my size and basically go hard to the net—take the puck there, protect the puck in the corners and finish my checks, all the basic stuff that a guy my size has to do, along with scoring some goals and helping my team win."