Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Add Ponich to list of defensive depth for Blues

Defenseman's ultimate goal of playing in
NHL being aided by working with Johnson

ST. LOUIS -- When Marshall Davidson got his first glimpse of Brett Ponich, it wasn't a hockey picture he saw. It was more like visions of Sesame Street.

Davidson, Blues President John Davidson's brother and amateur Western scout for the Blues who has a keen eye for players primarily in the Western Hockey League, came away wondering what the Blues really had when they drafted Ponich in the second round (48th overall pick) in 2009.

"If you saw him early last season, you might have come away thinking he looked like Big Bird on skates, if you know what I mean," Marshall Davidson joked. "But the more we went back to see him, the better he got."

And as the 6-foot-7, 225-pound Ponich outgrew his Big Bird status, he's entrenched himself quite nicely at Blues camp this season under the watchful eye of fellow defenseman Erik Johnson, the top overall pick in 2006.

Not a bad player to try and model oneself after.

Ponich, an Edmonton, Alberta native who's spent the past three full seasons and a part of a third with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, has been under Johnson's wing since the start of camp. The two have been paired together in practices and played on the same line during Tuesday's 3-1 loss to Colorado.

In the grand scheme of things, Ponich, who is trending upward on the depth chart scale despite a heavy load of defensive prospects, played very well in his first preseason game, even getting some praise from coach Davis Payne in the process.

But the valuable experience Ponich is gaining watching and learning from Johnson has made this, his second camp, a much smoother transition.

"It's fortunate that I got paired up with a guy like him," Ponich said of Johnson. "He's very personable, and he has no problem coming up to you and letting you know what you did wrong. I really enjoy that because I'm here to get better and learn from him. He's great on the ice, likes to take charge and he's talking to me out there and makes it a lot easier for me.

"EJ's an extremely skilled player and if I'm ever able to play like him, I'll be really thrilled with that. It's little smart plays and positionally how he plays guys out of the corner. I'm more of a shutdown guy so I really look at how he plays defensively and I try and take that from him."

Ponich, who models himself after guys like Chris Pronger, Zdeno Chara and Hal Gill among others, displays the ability to position himself well in his own end, but in order to play that big-time shut-down role in his own end, he knows the skating ability is where he needs most work on.

Developing a consistently good shot on the offensive end wouldn't be a bad thing either.

"He's still developing. I don't think he's hit his full potential yet, but he's got all the tools to be a successful in the league," Johnson said of Ponich. "He works really hard and wants to get better. He's showing signs of being a good player and wanting to be a good player and those are the ingredients you need to be a successful.

"He wants to improve his shot, improve his skating. I've given him names of skating coaches I went to see when I was a younger kid. He wants to be critiqued and he wants to be helped out and I'm more than willing to do what I can to make him a better player."

It wasn't long ago that Johnson in the same position as Ponich. Although still learning himself, Johnson has no qualms taking on that big brother role.

"It's a newer role for me, but it's something I'm ready to embrace," he said. "I had guys do it for me when I was younger. Even though I'm still a younger guy, I can take on that role and really help him out and make the transition easy and make him feel comfortable."

Ponich is learning on the fly just where he needs to be. He's increased his muscle mass and went from 209 pounds to 225 in camp recently.

Chasing T.J. Oshie around the ice will do that to you, and having to muscle up with the likes of David Backes, Cam Janssen or Brad Winchester can impact the body.

"I love this kind of hockey. It's real fun to play with that intensity," Ponich said. "You have guys like Winchester who really challenges me to be as strong as I can and then you have guys like Oshie who challenges me to be as quick as I can. It's been an eye-opener, but it's been really fun."

Talent and ability play a big role in a player's development and eventual role in the NHL. But the other 50 percent must come from the mental aspect, and Ponich has the right attitude when it comes to one day wearing the Blue Note.

"It's great playing in Portland, but I want to play here as soon as I can," said Ponich, the captain for his WHL squad. "It's just one more step towards my goal. ... I spent two weeks here last year and I'm on my second week here (this year). I feel like I've improved a whole lot being up here skating with these guys. Every time I'm here, I try and take a little bit back.

"I think I'm on track here. I just do what they tell me to do and I'll be here as soon as I can."

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