Alexei Ponikarovsky was picked in the fourth round (87th overall) by Toronto in 1998. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Whether via text messaging or over a frosty beverage, you can bet trade talk is the dominant topic of conversation among NHL GMs these days.
If I was at the helm of an NHL team and happened to be chewing trade with Toronto Maple Leafs boss Brian Burke, I’d be far more inclined to test the waters on left winger Alexei Ponikarovsky than center/infrequent winger Matt
(This is all with the understanding that the Leafs’ top two potential moving blocks, Tomas Kaberle and Niklas Hagman, would require more return than I either have or am willing to part with.)
It’s very probable Stajan and Ponikarovsky, both pending unrestricted free agents, will be moved before the March 3 trade deadline as Burke tries to provide some kind of direction to a franchise that has as many disenfranchised supporters as ever.
Nik Antropov was moved at this time last year for a second round pick and, presumably, you’re looking at the same price – maybe a mid-level prospect – to put Stajan or Ponikarovsky on your club.
The reason I’d pony up for Ponikarovsky first is because it’s easier to envision him excelling in a playoff scenario than Stajan. Projecting post-season exploits for either player requires a little imagination because neither has experienced anything beyond regular season action since the lockout ended.
But Ponikarovsky’s size alone – 6-foot-4, 220 pounds – makes him more of a prime candidate to excel in a setting where the going gets gruff. He’s also a three-time 20-goal scorer who’s on pace for 27 this year – and don’t forget he’s playing for the Leafs.
The 29-year-old Ukrainian has a decent shot, but his most desirable quality is an ability to stake his claim to a section of ice close to the crease and use quick hands to hammer home rebounds. Again, by virtue of size, he’s also pretty good down low, where he can protect the puck and work a good cycle with his linemates.
Of course, before making any moves, it’s important a team has clearly identified its needs. Dealing for Ponikarovsky means you want a guy who can come in and get you some goals. Maybe he provides what you’re after, maybe he doesn’t, but either way there’s no confusion as to what’s motivating the transaction.
What void are you hoping to fill in a swap for Stajan? Sometimes it’s tough to figure out what kind of role a decent player on a bad team would fill on a good squad. The 26-year-old Leaf lifer falls into that category. Stajan has shown he can put some numbers up when playing with a front-line player like Phil Kessel, but he’s not good enough to generate a ton of production on his own.
Quite frankly, it’s tough to see Stajan playing a top-six role on a team that considers itself good enough for a Cup run.
So maybe he slides into the third-line pivot role. He’s certainly got more offensive upside than the majority of No. 3 centers, but then again, is decent scoring ability what you’re looking for out of that position? Goals are welcome wherever they come from, but most teams’ bottom line on the bottom two lines is playing an effective shutdown role.
Stajan is a heads-up, defensively aware hockey player, but he’s not somebody you throw over the boards with the belief he’ll unconditionally thwart whatever heat the opposition brings. I don’t see him fulfilling the same role Sammy Pahlsson played between Rob Niedermayer and Travis Moen for the Ducks during their 2007 run to the Cup and obviously he’s well short of guys like Kris Draper and John Madden, who were defined by their ability to deafen the most prolific attackers during their heyday.
Stajan is a fairly versatile hockey player, but in this case his status as a jack-of-all-trades, master of none could work as a deterrent in dealing for him.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.