EL SEGUNDO, CA — As the Los Angeles Kings head into their 2010 exhibition season tonight (September 22, 2010) at Colorado, much of what head coach Terry Murray has in mind for his team is already apparent, especially in terms of his forward lines.
At this point in the Kings’ 2010 training camp, Murray has Anze Kopitar centering the first line with Ryan Smyth and Dustin Brown on the wings, with Jarret Stoll centering the second line between Scott Parse and Justin Williams.
Murray’s shut down line, the third line, features Michal Handzus centering left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky and right wing Wayne Simmonds, three players who can play a physical, two-way game.
“I think we’re going to be a pretty good line and a pretty hard line to play against,” said Ponikarovsky, who was signed to a one-year, unrestricted free agent contract worth $3 million on July 27. “The three of us have pretty good size, we can keep the puck in the offensive zone and grind on [the opposition], tire them down and create some chances for ourselves.”
The 30-year-old native of Kiev, Ukraine joins the Kings after scoring 21 goals and adding 29 assists for fifty points with 61 penalty minutes in 77 games last season with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The 6-4, 229-pound winger scored 19 goals and tallied 22 assists for 41 points with 44 penalty minutes in 61 regular season games with the Maple Leafs before being dealt to the Penguins on March 2, 2010, in exchange for forward Luca Caputi and defenseman Martin Skoula.
With the Penguins, Ponikarovsky scored two goals and contributed seven assists for nine points with 17 penalty minutes in 16 regular season games.
In the playoffs, Ponikarovsky scored a goal and added four assists for five points in eleven games with the Pens.
Now settled in Southern California, Ponikarovsky is working to fit in with his line mates.
“We’ve only had a couple of days to practice, but we’re trying to get some chemistry going, see where each other is at and [get a feeling] for each other on the ice,” he said. “I’m learning the system, seeing what I should do on the forecheck, back check and all this stuff. We have to get that out of the way, then I’ll know what I should do on the ice and what my role is.”
“I’m a big guy, physical,” he added. “I try to go hard on the forecheck, get the pucks, get it to the net, create chances for my line mates and score goals.”
“He’s a big man who gets up and down the ice very well,” said Murray. “He’s a good complement to the line with Handzus and Simmonds. You see him battling along the boards—puck possession, separating his man from the puck. He’s got the size and strength and he knows how to use that. He’s a great addition to what we need to continue to push.”
Ponikarovsky is not skating into totally uncharted territory with his new team, despite the differences in the style of play between the Eastern and Western Conferences.
“I’ve been working out throughout the summer to get ready for the season,” said Ponikarovsky. “I know it’ll be a little bit different game here than in the East, but I think I can adjust pretty well to it.”
Having skated against Handzus while both played in the East helps a bit.
“I pretty much knew Michal when he played in Philadelphia,” Ponikarovsky noted. “We played a lot against each other. I know the way he plays and he knows the way I play.”
“I think [Ponikarovsky is] a really good addition for us,” said Handzus. “He’s fast, he’s strong, and he’s got a great shot.”
>Handzus is coming off a strong 2009-10 season in which he scored twenty goals and tallied 22 assists for 42 points in 81 games, along with three goals and two assists for five points in six playoff games.
In the final year of a four-year contract, the 6-4, 219-pound native of Banska Bystrica, Slovakia worked out hard during the off-season, noting that, as a 33-year-old, grizzled veteran, he has to pay greater attention to his strength and conditioning.
“I feel great,” he explained. “I feel refreshed. I worked hard over the summer. As you get older, you have to focus even more on your physical conditioning, and that’s what I did. Hopefully, it translates during the season.”
“You always want to get better, so my biggest thing is my skating,” he elaborated. “I did some workouts for my legs to get a little faster, a little stronger.”
Simmonds’ also focused on his skating during the off-season.
“I worked a lot on my strength in my legs this summer, doing a lot more isolated, single-leg stuff,” said the 22-year-old native of Scarborough, Ontario, who scored 16 goals and added 24 assists for forty points in 78 regular season games, along with two goals and an assist in six playoff games.
“I feel stronger out there, off my first two or three strides,” added Simmonds. “I can actually feel myself powering up. I feel good out there. I just hope I can continue that.”
Simmonds, who is never going to be anything like the Incredible Hulk on skates in terms of being an imposing physical specimen, did not neglect the rest of his body.
“I did a lot of working out, trying to get bigger and stronger,” he noted. “I got a lot stronger this summer in all aspects. I feel good right now.”
“I’m not the biggest guy,” he added. “I’m slight in stature, but I got stronger this summer. That’ll help my game tremendously.”
Simmonds, who already has solid chemistry with Handzus, is quickly getting comfortable playing on a line with Ponikarovsky.
ldquo;I played with Handzus the past two years, so I have chemistry with him,” said Simmonds. “Ponikarovsky’s fitting in perfectly. He’s a big body. I think we’re going to be relied upon to crash and bang down low and get puck possession. So far, we’ve worked well together and I think that’s going to continue.”
Indeed, that is exactly what the line will be expected to do.
“I look at Handzus as a third-line player because I really want to get him matched up against the top lines of the opponents,” said Murray. “Just for that reason, I call them the third line.”
“I think they can be a dynamic third line,” added Murray. “Simmonds has really grown. Ponikarovsky on the left side is a big guy, and I know he plays both ends of the game pretty well. We’re going to look to those guys to shut down top lines.”
Handzus noted that his line is well-suited to handle the job.
“They’re big bodies, they’re very strong on the puck, they have big shots and they’re very fast,” Handzus said of his line mates. “They’re big guys, but they’re fast. We can play that puck possession game, especially against top lines.”
“If you can have the puck on your stick for more time, it benefits us,” Handzus added. “We can take away their time with the puck. If we play to our potential, we have a chance to be a very successful line for our team.”
But with two, twenty-goal scorers and another who is on the rise and was not far from the twenty-goal mark last season, the Kings’ shut down line could turn out to be much more.
“I always try to set my bar high,” Ponikarovsky stressed. “I want to [score as many goals] as I can, to squeeze out whatever I can during the season.”
Simmonds, whose 16 goals last season set a new career high, is hoping to surpass his offensive numbers from 2009-10.
“Hopefully, I eclipse the 16-goal mark, which I got last year,” he said. “I’m a little older, smarter. I’m going to improve, I’m going to pick up little things I didn’t know last year. I think that my numbers will improve.”
“Last year, I was watching [Smyth] a lot,” he added. “I learned a lot of his tricks along the wall and in front of the net. Last year, I picked Smyttie and I want to be better scorer.”
“Guys like Brown and Kopitar are shooters. I think if I watch those guys more in practice and in games, I’ll pick up little tips on how to put the puck in the net. I’m a pretty fast learner. Hopefully, it works out.”
Regardless of their aspirations in terms of offensive production, the three forwards know what their primary mission is.
“I think I can help a bit more offensively, but, at the same time, play more of my defensive style,” said Simmonds. “I’m not going to change anything at all. My game is what it is. It speaks for itself, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“It’s my puck possession time down low, in the zone,” added Simmonds. “If I have the puck the majority of the time, that’s my game. If I’m not playing down low with the puck, I’m not being effective.”
“Most definitely, you want to be a two-way player because without defense, you’re not going to get good offense,” Ponikarovsky emphasized. “You can’t forget about the defensive side of the game.”
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