The Winnipeg Jets made moves with the future in mind on Wednesday.
Winnipeg traded veteran forward Alex Ponikarovsky to the New Jersey Devils just hours after acquiring 24-year-old left-winger Eric Tangradi from the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Jets sent their 2013 seventh-round draft pick to Pittsburgh for Tangradi. Winnipeg then got a 2013 seventh-round draft pick and a 2014 fourth-round pick from New Jersey in exchange for Ponikarovsky.
“We went out and acquired (Tangradi) and upon acquiring him we had the opportunity to open up some roster space and some ice time for him,” said Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff. “We’re very hopeful that he is someone that, given an opportunity to play within our organization, is going to blossom and continue to move forward.
“It was really more about creating an opening and an opportunity for Eric as opposed to anything with Alexei.”
The deal will also help New Jersey, which announced Wednesday that forward Dainius Zubrus will undergo wrist surgery on Thursday that may end his season. Ponikarovsky was a natural choice to replace Zubrus — he played 33 games for the Devils last season with seven goals and 11 assists.
“He fit in so well for us last year. He played our style and he played in all situations,” said Devils GM Lou Lamoriello. “He was a player that played extremely well for us in the playoffs.”
New Jersey was the Eastern Conference champion last year, losing the Stanley Cup to the Los Angeles Kings in six games.
“We’ve been talking over a couple of days on the Tangradi deal, but how the other things laid out really just started to take fruition as the deal was being announced,” said Cheveldayoff. “With New Jersey having their issues with injuries and stuff like that, it really just made things work for both sides.”
The 32-year-old Ponikarovsky signed with Winnipeg as a free agent in the off-season, agreeing to a one-year deal worth US$1.8 million. He had two goals in 12 games with the Jets.
“I probably didn’t click in,” he said of the Jets (5-6-1), who are in third place in the Southeast Division. “But I appreciated the Winnipeg organization, and I’m happy now to go back to the team I played for last year.”
Cheveldayoff had no regrets when asked if the deal with Ponikarovsky was a mistake.
“If you’re worried about taking swings and missing you’re not going to get up to the plate,” said the Jets GM. “You have to try and do some things. Again, there’s different reasons why guys are available — age, opportunities, teams looking to use younger players within their organization — so free agency is a time where you look at what’s available, you try to fit some needs, some of them fit, some of them don’t.
“Alexei is someone we wish all the best.”
Ponikarovsky has played in 648 career NHL games between the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey and Winnipeg. He has 137 goals and 179 assists in that span.
He was originally selected by Toronto in the fourth round — 87th overall — in the 1998 NHL Draft.
Cheveldayoff acknowledged that Ponikarovsky’s 12 games in Winnipeg wasn’t a large sample size, but because of the NHL’s lockout-shortened season he had to evaluate his roster quickly.
“I think that this season every game is magnified to the point though where, while the time frame might be compressed, each and every game has a greater magnitude,” said Cheveldayoff. “We had to make some decisions and I’ve had the opportunity to see the majority of the games our team has played, talking to our coaches and obviously trying to look at a long-term plan to continue to get better as an organization.
“The opportunity to make these moves today is something that we’re hopeful will grow into something great.”
The six-foot-four Tangradi had 67 goals and 101 assists in three seasons with the Ontario Hockey League’s Belleville Bulls before being drafted 42nd overall in the 2007 NHL entry draft by the Anaheim Ducks. He had 60 goals and 61 assists over four seasons with the American Hockey League’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
“We’re going to give Eric an opportunity to grow into it,” said Cheveldayoff. “He’s a big player. He’s a former second-round draft pick that had a very good junior career, had a very good American Hockey League career.
“A lot of these players that move into the National Hockey League and find their way do so because they’re given opportunities and sometimes it’s not within the organizations that develop them.”
Tangradi had a goal and four assists with a plus-5 rating in 45 games with Pittsburgh.