RALEIGH — In the past few weeks, Alexei Ponikarovsky has moved his family down from Toronto, met his new Carolina Hurricanes teammates, mourned the deaths of friends in a Russian plane crash and adjusted to his new environment.
But the whirlwind has subsided. It's all about preparing for the season, establishing himself on the team and finding his niche in the lineup.
"We have a young team, which I like, and we have a bunch of talent here," Ponikarovsky said. "It's a new season and new excitement. New atmosphere, new team.
"You want to prove for yourself that you are still the same player and can do the same things you used to. I just have to bring my game - physicality, battle in the corners, get to the net and get back to the scoring."
At 31, Ponikarovsky may be entering a pivotal year in an NHL career that began in 2000. In parts of nine seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he scored 20 or more goals three times, with a career-high 23 in 2008-2009.
Traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in March 2010, Ponikarovsky was in 27 regular-season and playoff games for the Pens. He then signed a one-year, free-agent contract with the Los Angeles Kings for the 2010-2011 season worth $3 million.
But in 61 games with the Kings, he had just five goals and 10 assists. A broken finger early in the season was a setback, he said. Then came an ankle injury that was slow to heal. The frustration built.
Come July, Ponikarovsky was looking for another team and signed with the Hurricanes for $1.5 million.
"Last season wasn't really successful," he said. "Those things happen with different players, in different seasons. It was just one of those seasons I had injuries and just couldn't get back into it.
"As a player, you always want to achieve something more, so you move on and work harder next season. You learn and move on."
The Hurricanes seemed a good fit for the Kiev, Ukraine, native. He had played for Canes coach Paul Maurice for two seasons when Maurice coached the Leafs. Canes forward Jiri Tlusty was a former Leafs teammate.
Soon, two other ex-Leafs had signed with the Hurricanes - center Tim Brent and defenseman Tomas Kaberle. After an informal skate this week, Ponikarovsky, Kaberle, Brent and Tlusty spent a few minutes together on the RBC Center ice, talking things over.
"When I saw them I said, 'It's like back in Toronto now,' " Ponikarovsky said, smiling. "A lot of familiar faces."
Ponikarovsky also said he played with defenseman Bryan Allen in Russia during the 2004-2005 NHL lockout season, noting, "I was the translator for him and (goalie) Manny Legace."
On a more somber note, Ponikarovsky said he knew some of the players and coaches on the Lokomotiv team of the Kontinental Hockey League who were killed Sept. 7 when their jet crashed near Yaroslavl, Russia. Lokomotiv assistant coach Igor Korolev was a former Leafs teammate who lived near Ponikarovsky in Toronto.
"I knew his wife, knew his kids. It's just a sad situation," Ponikarovsky said.
In practices and scrimmages with the Canes, Ponikarovsky has been playing at left wing on Eric Staal's line. He could give Staal a power forward - Ponikarovsky is 6 feet 4 and weighs 233 pounds - to make up for the departure of Erik Cole.
"He's a big man," Staal said. "He can bring some offense to the table and can control the puck at both ends of the rink. He's got a good stick and is a guy who will help our team and make us bigger and stronger up front."
Ponikarovsky said it would be nice to play with Staal but quickly added that wasn't his focus for now.
"It's just on the work," he said. "Every year in Toronto everybody was asking, 'Are you going to get 30 goals?' or 'What do you think?' and I'm not going to say anything. I always say we're going to see. I'll just do my best and we'll go from there."
Note: The Canes on Monday assigned goalie Matt Mahalak to the Plymouth Whalers, his junior team. That trimmed the team's training camp roster to 55.
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