Recapping Day 1 of 2012 NHL free agency for Jets

- July 1st, 2012

So the Winnipeg Jets signed a forward with some skill as NHL free agency opened.

It wasn’t Zach Parise, but rather his former New Jersey Devils teammate Alexei Ponikarovsky.

No, it wasn’t the kind of deal that turns the Jets into a bona fide contender, but it does improve their skill level and size.

Ponikarovsky, who is 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, revealed the Jets actually pursued them in free agency last year, but he opted to sign with the Carolina Hurricanes instead.

Traded to the Devils before the deadline, the 32-year-old managed 14 goals and 33 points in 82 total games last season, adding one goal (the OT winner in Game 3 of the second round series vs the Philadelphia Flyers) and nine points in 24 Stanley Cup playoff games as they lost the championship final in six games to the Los Angeles Kings.

“That was a great experience. I’ve never been that far,” said Ponikarovsky.

Ponikarovsky’s production was a little lower than Kyle Wellwood (18 goals, 47 points), who is an unrestricted free agent and figures to have several options to consider.

Ponikarovsky was a frequent linemate of Nik Antropov and the two of them could be a handful for opposition defenceman, should they rekindle some of the magic they showed during their time with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“By now a lot of hockey fans know the way I play, from getting in on the forecheck and finishing my check,” Ponikarovsky said on a conference call. “I’m obviously a big body who can score the goals, create some opportunities for my linemates, use my big body up front. I can kill penalties, play on the power play. I’ve shown that before. I can be useful in any situation.”

Ponikarovsky had four 20-goal seasons with the Maple Leafs and added a fifth in 2009-10, scoring 19 for the them before adding two with the Pittsburgh Penguins after a deadline-deal.

“I know it’s a good hockey town and it’s always been,” he said. “It’s nice to be back in a Canadian town where there’s lots of passion for hockey. And great fans.”

It’s likely Antropov, who helped with the sales pitch, and Ponikarovsky will play on a line together, so it will be interesting to see if they play on the second or the third. Antropov had 15 goals last season and is in a contract year. Being reunited with his pal should be beneficial for both players.

Also signed by the Jets on Monday was Winnipegger Derek Meech, a defenceman who endured some injury woes but rebounded nicely and had an excellent playoff for the St. John’s IceCaps of the American Hockey League.

Just like last season, Meech will be given a chance to make the NHL club and should provide depth on the blue-line and be an upgrade over Randy Jones, who won’t be offered a contract by the Jets.

On the flip side, the Jets character quotient took a hit with the departures of left-winger Tanner Glass and backup goalie Chris Mason.

The Jets made a strong push to sign both players and actually offered a 2nd year to Mason, who signed a one-year pact to return to the Nashville Predators, an organization he’s had two previous tours of duty with.

In speaking to both Mason and Glass, both enjoyed their time with the Jets immensely and expressed a desire to return, but feel they’re closer to winning the Stanley Cup in their new locales. You can’t really blame a player for that.

The Jets also lost goalie Jonas Gustavsson to the Detroit Red Wings, but that means they won’t surrender the conditional 7th-round pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft to the Maple Leafs for the right to negotiate with him exclusively until July 1.

It was a win-some, lose-some type of day for Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.

“Today was a very interesting day as well,” he said. “Made a lots of phone calls on the outgoing side. We were very into several deals that unfortunately did not go in our direction. That’s the way July 1st goes.

“Players are very competitive, there’s no question about that. When you get the opportunity to pick and choose where you want to sign in free agency, there are players who do get to do that. When it does affect you close to home with players that have played for you, you wish them all the best because they’re good people. That’s something that will never be lost in the equation here. But it also opens a new door for someone else and it opens a new opportunity for us to try and get better.You move onto the next person on the list and you go from there.”

Signing Ponikarovsky represents a pretty decent start and as Cheveldayoff pointed out, there are plenty of interesting players still available, most of whom are waiting to see where Parise and Ryan Suter sign before watching the dominoes fall after that.

Former Calgary Flames centre Olli Jokinen is a guy who many suggest might be a fit for the Jets and we’ll see where that goes. Ditto for Jiri Hudler, a slick winger that Cheveldayoff and assistant GM Craig Heisinger are familiar with from his days with the Grand Rapids Griffins.

Many of the players I suggested the Jets might pursue in terms of gritty forwards signed elsewhere, including Colby Armstrong and Brandon Prust (Montreal Canadiens), Adam Burish (San Jose Sharks) and Jordin Tootoo (Detroit Red Wings).

Finding a backup netminder is high on the priority list for the Jets on Monday and Dan Ellis is a guy who might fit the bill. If it doesn’t work out in free agency, a trade is also a possibility as several guys could be on the market, depending on where Roberto Luongo and several others end up.

Look for the Jets to add another forward as well.

Categories: Hockey

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