Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2007, the Anaheim Ducks have seemingly become the Rodney Dangerfields of the NHL. Despite the nucleus of the roster remaining similar to what was enough to beat Ottawa in five games after rolling through the West in 16 games, Anaheim isn't mentioned in the same breath with the trendy picks in the last couple of seasons.
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Defense of their only Cup didn't last long in '08 when the Ducks lost in six games against Dallas in the opening round. And they barely slipped into the postseason last season, so Anaheim hasn't done a lot to help its recent long-shot status.
Then again, it's hard to argue the Ducks weren't every bit as good as Cup runner-up Detroit by the end of the season. Anaheim took the Red Wings to seven games of a second-round series, and was locked in a 3-3 tie late in Game 7 before surrendering an ugly game- and series-deciding goal at Joe Louis Arena.
Teetering with only one more win than losses as late as March 15, the Ducks blocked out the potential distractions of a midseason change in the general manager's office and significant deals at the trade deadline to jell late. Anaheim's strength was a defense that went five deep with trusted veterans – Scott Niedermayer(notes), Chris Pronger(notes), Francois Beauchemin(notes), James Wisniewski(notes) and Ryan Whitney(notes).
Along the way there was a change of the guard in goal, as young Swiss-born Jonas Hiller(notes) supplanted fan-favorite J.S. Giguere, who struggled with consistency on the ice and with personal problems off of it (his father died midseason). Hiller is poised to begin the season as the starter while Giguere will waive his no-trade if he is dealt to a short list of teams.
Young forwards such as Ryan Getzlaf(notes), Corey Perry(notes) and Bobby Ryan(notes) will be looked upon to provide most of the offense, but the Ducks hope to get a couple of veterans going as well. The Ducks hope to have solved the hole at second-line center by acquiring Saku Koivu(notes) in the offseason, a close buddy of Teemu Selanne who announced he's playing his final season.
Anaheim plays in a division that has a lot of question marks. Will San Jose slip as a negative summer followed another postseason flameout for the Presidents' Trophy winners? Dallas has undergone change behind the bench and in the front office and are coming off a non-playoff season. Phoenix and Los Angeles are young.
The division is for the taking for Anaheim, and there's no reason to doubt the Ducks will be in the hunt.
Last year: 42-33-7 (91 points), second place Pacific Division, eighth place Western Conference to post a winning record and entry into the Stanley Cup playoffs for a fourth straight season. Beat San Jose in six games of an opening-round series before losing to Detroit in seven games during the conference semifinals.
Salary cap: With 23 players signed for a cap hit of approximately $54.45 million, the Ducks have a little wriggle room – about $4.2M – before hitting the ceiling.
Jonas Hiller has pushed aside J.S. Giguere from the pipes.
Three keys: The secret to Anaheim's success over the last half decade is the team's commitment to defense, and the performance of the blue line. Few rosters can boast of a special player like Niedermayer, when he's present, but it's been more about the group than any one individual. Remember, coach Randy Carlyle was an outstanding defender in the league so he knows about the importance of the position.
The trade of Pronger to Philadelphia and the loss of Beauchemin mean the mix will change, but the Ducks have done a nice job of reloading on the fly by adding promising teenager Luca Sbisa as part of the Pronger deal and veteran Nick Boynton from Florida, a rearguard who is familiar with the Western Conference.
The Ducks will need Wisniewski and Whitney to continue to play as well as they did since coming aboard late last season. They also require Brett Festerling and Sheldon Brookbank(notes) to potentially expand their roles and the graybeard Niedermayer to remain the man to bring the group together.
Second, Hiller has to pick up where he left off in goal and prove he wasn't a flash in the postseason pan, especially if the Ducks trade Giguere and have the untested and unproven Justin Pogge providing back up. Hiller and the Ducks will, too, be without respected goaltending coach Francois Allaire, who departed Anaheim for Toronto.
Third, the 34-year-old Koivu is the most pivotal offensive performer on the roster. If he clicks with Selanne the Ducks should have two formidable offensive lines. If not, both Koivu and Selanne will be players Anaheim can do little with since they won't be asked to check or provide energy.
Koivu will embark on a 14th NHL season, his first outside of Montreal. The fact he's leaving a fishbowl for a destination that features far less outside pressure could revive Koivu's production that has slipped from 75 points in 2006-07 to 50 and 56 points the last two seasons.
On the hot seat: Carlyle has done an outstanding job for much of his first four seasons as an NHL coach. But do remember, Carlyle was Brian Burke's guy and the Ducks are now run by GM Bob Murray. That doesn't mean Murray doesn't recognize Carlyle's worth, but this being the NHL a coach usually is lucky to last in one place as long as Carlyle has managed. Look around the division – Dave Tippett, Ron Wilson, Marc Crawford and Terry Murray – have all been fired during Carlyle's tenure with the Ducks. If the team has a fall, the axe could, too.
Poised to blossom: Mike Brown is a 24-year-old castoff from the Vancouver organization, and he is a speedy, tough-to-oppose winger who could be part of Anaheim's new third-line look. The Ducks have always featured an outstanding checking line, but the personnel on that unit have changed. Brown is an outstanding penalty killer and he figures to turn that speed into more offense. He's a sleeper on the roster you'll hear more about as the season unfolds.
Time has passed: Selanne is a wonderful personality for the game, and a perfect fit for the Anaheim franchise. Assuming he doesn't return to native Finland after his playing days are through, the Ducks would be smart to find a job that keeps Selanne's bright personality shining through for the team. In the meantime, the Finnish Flash has said this will be his final season, and there's a danger in looking at the end of the tunnel before you enter it. Selanne scored only 11 even-strength goals last season. His production has slipped the last couple of seasons, and signing Koivu to a one-year deal is a logical attempt at sparking two careers. But the team has to keep a watchful eye on Selanne's minutes otherwise he might not be healthy and fresh at the most important time of the season.
Prediction: The Ducks are a younger and faster team than at this time last year. The fact they've addressed both problems will go a long way in allowing the team to play strong from the start and not dig itself into a hole. Look for Anaheim to take advantage of an unpredictable division to compete for one of the conference's top three seeds and make noise in the postseason, too.