STATE OF THE UNION
Since the NHL lockout, the Anaheim Ducks have 180 victories. Just seven other teams can claim to have reached or topped that total -- Detroit, San Jose, New Jersey, Buffalo, Dallas, Nashville and Carolina.
An average of 45 wins and 100 points during that period represents the longest sustained success for a franchise born out of the 1990s expansion out West and into the South.
Seven playoff series victories – including four in their 2007 Stanley Cup title run – in the last four seasons are tied for second-most in the NHL. Only Pittsburgh and Detroit, the last two champions, can claim such postseason dominance.
Yet, when it comes to rattling off the names of the League's top teams, the Ducks aren't often among the first few mentioned.
"I don't think we're a name that jumps to mind but I think we're a name when people think about it a bit, we'd better include Anaheim," said Bob Murray, the club's executive vice president and general manager. "I think we're in that second tier, the type of team that nobody wanted to play in the playoffs. But I don't think we're the first name on anybody's tongue."
Surely, it has helped that the Ducks have had Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger – two Norris Trophy-winning defensemen – for most of that time. And they've had Hall of Fame-bound sniper Teemu Selanne, plus Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
But Murray has worked hard to keep the run of success going since taking over for Brian Burke last November, going so far as to break off a number of parts of that Cup team to bring in new and, more importantly, younger blood.
Murray sent away Chris Kunitz, who won his second Cup with Pittsburgh, and Samuel Pahlsson, one of the League's top shutdown centers, to rebuild the back end with Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski in separate deals this past spring. Serviceable performers in Travis Moen and Kent Huskins netted young prospects at the trade deadline.
Another bold move came at the Entry Draft when Murray traded Pronger to Philadelphia and got back a large haul -- proven goal-scoring winger Joffrey Lupul, talented 19-year-old puck-mover Luca Sbisa and two first-round picks.
But the real coup could come in the form of signing long-time Montreal captain Saku Koivu, a free agent who was no longer wanted by the Canadiens. The Ducks are hoping that the highly respected Koivu, an eight-time 50-point scorer, is the answer to their lengthy search for a second-line center.
"The longer you go with a good, competitive team, the tougher it gets to keep it that way. Obviously some things come to an end at some point. At some point, we'll have to tell ownership we may be doing something different. I'm not ready for that point."
-- GM Bob Murray
All the while, the former Burke lieutenant managed to slash some payroll and pull his club back from the salary-cap cliff. Murray said Assistant General Manager David McNab and directing of pro scouting Rick Paterson have played a large role in his maneuvers.
"First and foremost, you have to have a staff that finds players," Murray said. "Obviously, if you're not rebuilding, you're finding players somewhere else. You're re-energizing your lineup with people other than draft picks.
"The only other way to rebuild is to go to the bottom, like say Pittsburgh, Chicago and Phoenix, and do it that way. There's different ways but you have to have a good staff. [Detroit GM] Kenny Holland will tell you have that he has a great staff. You have to have a good staff and you have to trust your staff."
Another thing that drives Murray to remain competitive is the widespread and fickle Southern California market, where casual fans tend to follow a winner. Falling to the bottom of the standings and starting anew means you'll be ignored.
"I don't think our market would accept that," Murray said. "I think some markets who will have fans no matter what will. But Chicago didn't really like it. Pittsburgh didn't like it. Some places like Toronto -- you can do it and not hurt your base. Doing it in Anaheim would be a recipe for disaster."
The fact is the savvy GM saw no reason to tear things down when his team was sitting outside the playoff picture at the trade deadline last March. And with Niedermayer and Selanne back for perhaps a final season – something that's now closer to reality – Murray is again willing to go for the Cup while also building for the future.
As he said back in May following their seven-game Western Conference semifinal loss to Detroit, "Rebuilding is not in our vocabulary right now. I don't like that word."
"The longer you go with a good, competitive team, the tougher it gets to keep it that way," Murray said last week. "Obviously some things come to an end at some point. At some point, we'll have to tell ownership we may be doing something different.
I'm not ready for that point."
Now that Bobby Ryan is in the NHL for good after a 31-goal rookie season, and hard-working forwards Ryan Carter, Andrew Ebbett and Drew Miller have earned promotions, Anaheim finds itself in dire need of finding some impact players among its most recent high draft picks.
Since drafting Ryan No. 2 in 2005, the Ducks have had their longest stretch of success as a franchise and have thus picked in the middle of the first round or lower. There isn't much yet at the AHL level, particularly up front with Eric Tangradi, Eric O'Dell and Ryan Dingle sent away in trades.
It will take time for Anaheim to replenish itself, although GM Bob Murray has worked to bring in prospects from other organizations and secure draft picks through some of his deals.
Here's a look at the five biggest prospects on the horizon for the Ducks:
Jake Gardiner – Already compared to Scott Niedermayer because of his effortless skating, Gardiner landed on the top defense pairing in his first season at Wisconsin and the club's No. 1 pick in 2008 displayed his offensive ability. Has good size but could further fill out 6-foot-2 frame. There's no need to rush the Ducks' future power-play quarterback.
Mark Mitera – Anaheim will look closely at the former Michigan standout, who'll have a full season in the AHL to display his classic shut-down game on the blue line. At 6-3 and 213 pounds, the Ducks' top pick in 2006 has recovered from a torn ACL and could challenge for a roster spot in 2010-11 unless he has a big camp in September.
Brian Salcido – A local boy from Hermosa Beach, Calif., Salcido got a two-game look by the Ducks before spending the rest of the season with Iowa. The Colorado College product puts up points from the blue line but his work in the defensive end is suspect. Might be now or never in Anaheim for the 24-year-old.
Brendan Mikkelson – Because of injuries to the Ducks' defense corps, Mikkelson got a long look by the parent club as he appeared in 34 games. The 22-year-old Regina native, a second-round pick in 2005, should serve as an injury call-up or could battle Sheldon Brookbank for the No. 6 defense spot.
Matt Beleskey – A power forward in the making, the 21-year-old Beleskey followed up a strong final OHL season with Belleville (41 goals, 49 assists) by going 11-24-35 in 58 games with the Iowa Chops this past season. Ideal situation for Beleskey would be to improve on 2008-09 numbers in AHL and position himself for a real look in 2010-11.
If there was a specific theme to the Ducks' draft selections this past June, well, good luck trying to find it.
General Manager Bob Murray insists that he had no particular goal in mind other than to pick the best player available with the No. 15 pick and then fill some organizational needs in the later rounds.
As a result, Murray tapped almost every kind of player at the 2009 Entry Draft to replenish a system that is dried up in available top-end talent.
"I don't go with theme early in the draft," Murray said. "You take the best player early and then as you get into the later rounds, you have some needs that you'd like to fill."
Here is a look at the seven players the Ducks selected in Montreal this June:
Peter Holland -- In need of some offensive skill in the middle, the Ducks figured they could go for this 6-foot-1, 188-pound Toronto native who put up 28 goals and 39 assists in his second OHL season with Guelph. The question with the No. 15 pick isn't his ability, but whether he's willing to bring it every night.
Kyle Palmieri -- The Ducks' second pick of the first round is expected to go to Notre Dame. Some issues were raised after a rules violation got him dropped from the U.S. National Team Developmental Program, but no one questions this speedy and feisty 5-foot-10, 191-pound forward's effort.
Matt Clark -- The Ducks have some solid defense prospects in the system and the blue-line talent could keep flowing with Clark, a 6-3, 205-pound stay-at-home type who had 3 goals and 20 assists in first season for Brampton of the OHL.
Igor Bobkov -- Bereft of goaltending prospects, Anaheim grabbed the lone Russian netminder drafted. Bobkov is big (6-3, 192 pounds) and athletic but needs to further hone his technical skills. He was the top goalie in 2009 U-18 World Championships.
Sami Vatanen -- Size could be a big issue with the 5-9, 163-pound Finnish defenseman, but Vatanen, who turned 18 on June 3, can skate and run a power play. Good leadership skills.
Radoslav Illo -- Came from native Slovakia to put up 21 goals and 12 assists with the Tri-City Storm of the USHL. Needs work in defensive end and must bulk up 6-foot, 161-pound frame.
Scott Valentine -- This player enjoys the rough stuff and has some offensive tools, but is average in size(6-foot, 196 pounds) and lacks polish. He could work his way into club's future with big OHL season.