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Jets score Ponikarovsky

Lose Mason, Glass, get some size and goals

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If your wish was for the Winnipeg Jets to swan dive into the NHL free-agent pool and emerge with any one of the marquee names on the market in tow, then the club's effort on Day 1 of the talent feeding frenzy would best be described as a colossal belly flop.

That far-fetched free-agent fantasy aside, the reality for the Jets unfolded just about as expected not long after the market opened at 11 a.m. on Canada Day.

They lost two popular role players in Chris Mason and Tanner Glass, added some size and a bit of scoring in Alexei Ponikarovsky and took serious stabs at Zach Parise and Jordin Tootoo.

And so the Jets' return on Day 1 could be summed up thusly: frantically treading water.

"It's been an interesting day, as July firsts are," said Jets' GM Kevin Cheveldayoff Sunday night. "We made lots of phone calls. We were very into several deals that, unfortunately did not go in our direction. But that's the way July 1st goes."

The Jets were believed to be in the fight for Tootoo before he opted to sign with the Detroit Red Wings for three years at $1.9 million a season.

As for Parise, one of the gems of the market, the Jets made their best pitch but did not make his short list. And Winnipeg opted not to make a pitch for defenceman Ryan Suter. The decisions of those two marquee players could come as soon as Monday.

Cheveldayoff was also quick to straight-arm the suggestion Winnipeg being the NHL's smallest market was a factor on the first day of signings.

"We feel very proud about the offers we put onto the table," he said. "They were good offers but for whatever reason, whatever circumstance the player has chosen to go in a different direction.

"There's a lot of work ahead of us, there's no question about it. We're looking for opportunities now to fill in the holes that do remain. We'll look long and hard at some options from within as well, from the development side, but we'll continue to look at the free-agent side as well to see if it's the right fit."

The departure of Glass and Mason will hurt the Jets in the leadership department, but in Ponikarovsky the Jets have landed a 6-4, 220-pound veteran with a bit of a scoring touch.

The 32-year-old product of Kiev has eclipsed the 20-goal mark five times in an NHL career that includes 636 games. The Jets made a pitch to land him last year in free agency and this year had Nik Antropov, his former teammate in Toronto, call to help with their sales pitch.

Ponikarovsky had 14 goals and 19 assists last year with Carolina and New Jersey, but is now with his sixth organization -- including Toronto, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, the Canes, Devils and Jets -- since February of 2010.

"I get on the forecheck, finish my check and I'm a big body who can score some goals and create some opportunities for my linemates and use the big body up front," said Ponikarovsky in a conference call with Winnipeg media. "I can kill penalties, I can play on the power play. I can be useful in any situation. Every game, every night I'm trying to bring my best effort.

"I know a few guys there, especially my former teammate Nik Antropov. It should be a good fit for me because we played together before. It should be a good opportunity for me to show what I can do.

"I would try to bring a veteran feeling to the team," he added. "I've been through a lot over the years. That's my goal. I just want to do the best for the team to contribute to making the playoffs. It's probably going to be crazy when the Winnipeg Jets make the playoffs to go and play in that building. I can only imagine what is going to feel like."

Cheveldayoff and his staff are now on the hunt for a No. 2 netminder to Ondrej Pavelec and will continue their pursuit of more talent.

"What was once Plan A now becomes the next opportunities," said Cheveldayoff. "But that's sometimes where you find the hidden gems. We'll see what unfolds over the course of time. Free agency isn't just July 1. There's lots of good people, lots of good players, still up on the board."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2012 C1

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