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January 23, 2012
Zamboni Tracks
Calm Before The Storm

by Ryan Wagman

Columbus Blue Jackets

Signed D Brett Lebda to a one-year contract (January 19, 2012).
Assigned D David Savard to AHL Springfield (January 20, 2012).

The genesis of this signing, valid through the end of the 2011-12 season, can be found in a hit laid on Columbus blueliner Radek Martinek by Red Wing Brad Stuart back on October 21. With Martinek logging heavy minutes in the early going (never less than 20:56 per game), the Jackets had failed to compile more than a single point. Very early in game seven, the long-time Islander went down, five months after sustaining another severe concussion while representing his native Czech Republic at the World Hockey Championships.

At the time, GM Scott Howson recalled young John Moore, one of two Blue Jacket rearguards ranked in Corey Pronman's top 60 in the preseason. The other, David Savard, was already up with the team, having broken camp with the parent club, although he would shortly thereafter be demoted. Although neither player has provided much above replacement level hockey—as measured by GVT—the back end of the Columbus blue line rotation is merely a small symptom of the general nastiness that has befallen a franchise that has yet to experience its defining moment. When Lebda makes his 2011-12 NHL debut, he will become the eleventh defenseman used by the team. Only one, Fedor Tyutin, has been a mainstay throughout, not missing a match. Although Lebda has only once played over 75 NHL games in any of his six NHL seasons, most of the time missed by the Notre Dame alum has been due to healthy scratches. In other words, he will not be the solution to this team's woes.

Lebda was a fairly regular member of the Detroit rearguard between 2006-07 and 2008-09, a three-year stretch that saw the Wings win one Stanley Cup and lose another in the seventh game of the Finals. Lebda earned between 5.0-7.5 GVT each year. In 2009-10, the native of Buffalo Grove, Illinois was reduced to 2.1 GVT in 62 regular season games and to the status of an afterthought in the postseason, playing in only two of the Wings' 14 playoff games. After that season, the undersized blueliner moved to Toronto as a UFA, but spent exactly half the season watching the action from the pressbox while providing the Blue and White with below-replacement level hockey when he was asked to lace up. As bad as he was, Lebda was signed to a very team-friendly contract, allowing Brian Burke to use him as ballast in a trade that brought Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi to Toronto last offseason as the Predators sought to lower their payroll. Around the midway point between the trade and training camp, Nashville bought out his contract, making Lebda a free agent.

Unable to find a taker coming off such a horrible season, Lebda caught on with the Springfield Falcons, Columbus' AHL affiliate. Performing adequately, with 10 points in 26 games at the lower level, Lebda was finally given an NHL contract four days after his thirtieth birthday, as Columbus came to the realization that Martinek would not be returning this year.

That being said, Lebda is not a direct replacement for Martinek, but more a function of leverage chaining, where everyone moves up one spot on the depth chart. While Martinek was utilized as a defensive defenseman, Lebda, standing only 5'9", 195, was not trusted with the heavy defensive lifting, generally starting far more often in the offensive end than the more trustworthy would, and more often than not, having his shifts come to an end when the whistle blew with puck back in the defensive zone. Currently, that role had been filled by the aforementioned Savard, when he has been up with the big club. With this season already lost, Todd Richards would be best served to keep playing Savard over Lebda, although the youngster was demoted one day after the former Red Wing was given a contract. Expect Lebda to salvage a few minutes of ice time here and there over the remainder of the season and enter the upcoming offseason in much the same way he entered the last one.

Nashville Predators

Claimed winger Brandon Yip off of waivers from the Colorado Avalanche (January 19, 2012).

Over the course of any regular NHL season, plenty of fringe players (more often than not wingers) pass through waivers on their way from playing in the greatest league in the world back to the bus leagues. As these words are being written, the Blackhawks are dangling Brett McLean—who has not played in the NHL in over two years—for the second time this season, after he already successfully made it through to Rockford back in September. While former first round bust Colton Gillies was snatched from Minnesota by Columbus on the 14th, C Cal O'Reilly made it through the gauntlet earlier this month to remain a member of the Phoenix organization, as did winger Steve MacIntyre with Pittsburgh, D Mark Fraser with Anaheim, forward Brodie Dupont with Nashville, Tim Sestito with New Jersey, Bill Thomas with Florida, and a few more besides. And that is just looking at the wire in January.

The fact is that waivers are a way of life for peripheral players. Brandon Yip is just such a player. Between assorted arm and groin injuries, the Boston University grad has only played in 11 games for Colorado this season, managing to avoid registering a single point. This comes after a similarly disappointing season last year, in which Yip was limited to 22 points and 0.7 GVT in 71 games in his first full NHL season. What has made the past season and change so upsetting was the partial debut that preceded it all. The Vancouver native missed the first two months of his first professional season to a broken hand and was recalled to Colorado after only six games in the AHL. He came in like gangbusters, with 11 goals and 19 points in 32 games (4.1 GVT) and added an additional four points as the Avalanche were knocked out in six games in the first round of the playoffs.

A big driver for the changes in Yip's boxcar stats had to do with puck luck, as his PDO (measuring the difference in shooting percentage of his teammates and opponents while he was on the ice) went from a well above average 1048 in his truncated debut and regressed well past the mean to 966 last year. On the other hand, he faced relatively difficult competition in both years and started in the defensive zone more often than not. With a poor relative Corsi indicating a general inability to control the puck, it should come as no surprise that the Avalanche braintrust gradually dropped him down the lines from second-line play in 2009-10, to the third line last year and finally fourth line this year before he was shown the door.

Yip will be given the chance to earn steady fourth-line minutes with Nashville, as they currently have had only ten forwards with appreciably greater than replacement-level production in Martin Erat (7.1 GVT), David Legwand (6.1 GVT), Sergei Kostitsyn (6.1 GVT), Jordin Tootoo (4.1 GVT), Colin Wilson (3.6 GVT), Patric Hornqvist (3.4 GVT), Matt Halischuk (3.1 GVT), Craig Smith (2.9 GVT), Nick Spaling (2.9 GVT), and Mike Fisher (2.7 GVT). Erat is the only one currently in the league's top 100 (94th). The lack of elite scoring has not prevented the Predators from scoring at a middle of the pack rate this year as a team (2.71 goals per game, 13th in the NHL, shockingly buoyed by the second-most deadly power play in the game) but there is no question that the scoring committee could use a new member more potent than either Brian McGrattan or Jerrod Smithson. Yip's familiarity with the long view of the ice should help him acclimatize to his new surroundings. That said, the former eighth round draft pick should by no means be expected to reproduce his early career scoring pace. He was on waivers for cause.

New Jersey Devils

Acquired LW Alexei Ponikarovsky in trade from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for D Joe Sova and 2012 fourth round draft pick (January 20, 2012).

As this column did not give full breadth to Carolina's takeaway from this trade, it is only fair to begin this write up by noting that this is a salary dump on their end, pure and simple. Sova was an undrafted college free agent whose most notable collegiate accomplishment was being named most valuable defenseman for his University of Alaska team as a junior before signing on with New Jersey last year. According to Corey Pronman, he is a non-prospect. A fourth round pick is a nice asset in the abstract, but cursory glances at most past fourth rounds show a multitude of players who have never reached the NHL, and many of the remainder failed to leave much of a footprint outside of the encyclopedias.

One such success is Ponikarovsky, taken in the fourth round back in 1998 by the Maple Leafs. The lumbering Ukranian forward spent two more years in the Russian leagues before coming over to North America for the first full season of the millennium. He spent most of the next three years toiling for the Maple Leafs' farm team, then located in St. John's, Newfoundland. Multiple cameos gave him 43 games of NHL experience, in which he contributed three goals and six assists, accumulating 1.7 GVT. During that time, "Poni" also represented the Ukranian National team in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Alas, his contributions were not enough to see the Ukraine past Belarus in the qualification stage of the tournament.

Ponikarovsky finally earned a full-time gig with the Leafs in 2003-04, acquitting himself well as a 23-year old, contributing 28 points and a 5.8 GVT, helping Toronto to their most recent playoff berth. His upward momentum was not hindered by the lost season of 2004-05 as he returned even stronger, increasing his scoring rate by approximately 0.1 points per game per season*. In any case, from 2006-07 to 2009-10, Poni was a good second line winger with ample size and strength. At his best in 2008-09, the 6'4", 226-pound native of Kiev scored 61 points with 11.7 GVT. His skills were unfortunately wasted in Toronto, and Brian Burke eventually found a taker for him in the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team looking to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. While not horrible, approaching 30, Poni the Penguin was not able to contribute what he had for so many years in Toronto. His relatively poor play—despite favorable zone starts his numbers were slaughtered with bad puck luck (during their playoff run, the Penguins scored on only 5.17% of their shots with Poni on the ice)—left a poor taste in the mouths of potential suitors as he hit free agency. Not able to find a willing taker, Ponikarovsky had to settle for a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Kings for only $3.2 million for the 2010-11 season.

*This is true if we invert his production from the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons

Although his possession numbers were marginally favorable with the Kings, Ponikarovsky was snake-bitten in the offensive end and he only contributed 15 points and a 1.5 GVT for the West Coast club. Given a fourth chance to play in the postseason, Terry Murray was more likely to bench the big man than play him, as he spent four of their six playoff games watching from the press box.

Looking for redemption, Ponikarovsky lowered his price tag (down to $1.5 million on a single year deal) and signed with the Carolina Hurricanes on the opening day of free agency last summer. Facing better competition, Poni showed improved possession rates with the Hurricanes, but disturbingly his teammates continued to fail to hit the back of the net when he is on the ice, scoring on only 4.78% of their shots* when the former Leaf was in attendance at even strength. The poor percentages have seen his GVT hover around the replacement-level mark, and if the season ended today, he would have the worst mark of his career.

*League average team-level shooting percentage is 9.01%.

The preceding narrative shows a player squarely in decline, with the only redeeming factor being his incredibly poor puck luck. Ponikarovsky provided some optimism by scoring in his Jersey debut, the Devils' only goal in a 4-1 loss at home to the Flyers. For the time being, he has been placed on the third line with another physical winger in David Clarkson and the recently rehabilitated young pivot Jacob Josefson. If he can find a fit with Pete DeBoer's system and the Devils can score more often while he is on the ice, Ponikarovsky—who will turn 32 right before the start of the playoffs—can make a reasonable claim to having more productive hockey left in his stick. New Jersey, on the hook for only $641,000 through the end of the season, has nothing to lose in trying to find out if Poni's luck can return. If he starts to earn some time on the power play, we will know that he has found the trust of a coach once again.

Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.

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