Two tall Russian guys have helped the Leafs fill one of the key voids left by former captain Mats Sundin â€” leadership.
Nik Antropov and Alex Ponikarovsky â€” two of the tallest players the Leafs have â€” are handling unsung chores like smoothing out communication bugs with mostly Russian speaking rookies Mikhail Grabovski and Nik Kulemin.
Sundin is expected to make his playing intentions known as early as tomorrow, and definitely this week, but his absence, especially the dynamic of his unchallenged role as the Leafs leader for the past 14 seasons, hasn’t left any glaring leadership weaknesses within the Leafs playing group.
Antropov and Ponikarovsky, as the two longest serving Leafs next to Tomas Kaberle, marked a perfect solution to the Sundin void, especially when it comes Grabovski and Kulemin.
The two wingers, who have grown into close friends over the past eight seasons, have already adapted to their new roles as media ambassadors when it comes time for interviews with the two Russian rookies.
A perfect example of a more important leadership dynamic came during Friday’s game, when Leafs coach Ron Wilson put Kulemin on the top line with Antropov and Matt Stajan, and swapped Ponikarovsky into Kulemin’s former spot with Grabovski and Lee Stempniak.
Wilson mentioned Antropov yesterday as one of the key factors in swapping Kulemin and Ponikarovsky.
In his rookie season, Kulemin has so far posted six goals and 12 points in 29 games. He ranks 13th in overall rookie scoring and ninth in goals.
While those numbers are mostly respectable, Wilson, like most other observers, noticed the Kulemin-Grabovski line wasn’t as threatening with the loss of Nik Hagman last week (concussion). Kulemin showed a marked improvement when he was put on the Antropov line in the third period Friday in Buffalo when the Leafs posted a 2-1 comeback win over the Sabres.
“He struggles some nights,” Wilson said of Kulemin, in context to explaining the barriers a Russian speaking rookie faces in the NHL.
“We talk to him â€¦ it’s a different environment and he doesn’t speak English very well right now. We have Nik and Pony (Ponikarovsky) there to help, and Nik’s done a great job (with Kulemin), and that’s why I put Kulemin on that line.”
Ponikarovsky, over his career, has seen his best results alongside Antropov. The two were Sundin’s linemates for much of last year, and while the Leafs as a whole were obviously a non-playoff team, Sundin did post 32 goals and 78 points â€” his highest goals output in five seasons and highest points in six. This season, Ponikarovsky has often been involved in line shuffles. Part of that has to do with Wilson’s search for better line chemistry, but Ponikarovsky is also a good fit on any of the top three lines because of his size, shot, and experience.
“I might be there (with Grabovski) just because I’m a bigger guy and it might help, and that’s good,” Ponikarovsky said.
The Leafs remain without a captain, although that dynamic has been handled by Kaberle and Antropov, and to a lesser degree, Pavel Kubina and Dominic Moore.
Ironically, Kaberle, Antropov, Kubina, and Ponikarovsky are the subject of trade speculation, either this season, or over the summer.
There is a certain dismay in the dressing room over what many believe is a certain, looming change to the roster makeup.
But those changes, the lineup shuffles, and the revolving leadership on the team are issues Ponikarovsky understands as part of what the organization is attempting to do to bring the team out of a three-year playoff absence.
“You’d prefer to play (with a set line), but line changes are the coach’s decision and he’s doing what he sees is best for the team,” Ponikarovsky said.
“You as a player have to do what is best for the team. That’s what I want to do.”