Murray puts the 'M' in Mighty
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Less than a month after the season-ending loss, team captain Paul Kariya -- who became an unrestricted free agent after Murray made the difficult decision not to qualify the player at his current salary --bolted for the Colorado Avalanche in a shocking development.
Kariya, considered the face of the franchise after joining the first-year franchise as the club's first-round pick in 1993, accepted much less money from the Avalanche to join the perennially powerful Colorado Avalanche. To add insult to injury, fellow free agent Teemu Selanne, another summer target for Murray, joined Kariya in Colorado as part of a package deal.
Kariya's defection had the doomsday prophets out in force. Suddenly, the loss of Kariya, as well as Murray's stated desire to part ways with older free agents Oates and Thomas, had many observers suggesting that the Ducks would return to their middle-of-the-pack ways.
Some even suggested that the Mighty Ducks would follow in the footsteps of the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals -- Eastern Conference teams that made surprising runs to the Stanley Cup Finals in the last decade only to wallow in mediocrity since their rapid ascension.
But, Murray refuses to quietly accept these prognostications from outsiders unfamiliar with the character of his team.
In a stunning answer, Murray signed premier free agents Vaclav Prospal and Fedorov within a week's span to silence the critics and return an air of optimism to the team's growing fan base.
Prospal, a versatile forward coming off a career year in which he led the improving Tampa Bay Lightning in scoring, and Fedorov, one of the game's elite two-way centers and Detroit's leading scorer last season, give the Ducks automatic legitimacy in their quest to return to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The additions thrill Babcock, who believes his team's revamped lineup, especially at the center position, will keep his club among the NHL's upper echelon. He sees Fedorov, the underrated Steve Rucchin and playoff hero Sammy Pahlsson anchoring the middle of the ice, giving him a three-line attack that will be the envy of many coaches.
"Now, we have big bodies and good players down the middle," said Babcock, unable to wipe a grin off his face throughout the Fedorov press conference. "When you add that to our defense and our goaltending, we have the makings of a very good team.
"The speed we have through the neutral zone and in the center of the ice now is tremendous and that will make us a better team."
Fedorov, who signed a five-year deal with Anaheim after spending 13 stellar seasons with the Red Wings, also couldn't stop smiling as he sat fielding questions from the media. Obviously, he was contemplating just how good his new team, which ended his former team's Playoff dreams, could now be.
"Obviously, from the performance last year by this team they are a good team," said Fedorov. "I watched the second round against the Dallas Stars, and I knew this team would have a chance to go beyond the second and third round.
"It's a young team, very determined."
According to defenseman Keith Carney, one of the elder statesmen on the team, the club's determination has only been whetted by the succession of summer moves that have swirled around the team.
He insists the club has put the shocking defection of Kariya in the past and warmly embraced Murray's latest additions.
"Hey, we won the Western Conference and that was a great accomplishment," said Carney. "But, now, we have more to accomplish. We want to finish this thing and that is our goal now."
A goal that Murray believes is once again within reach after one of the wildest summers any Cup finalist has ever had to endure. He knows another run of success means his boat will sit in dry dock for an extended period of time, but it is a price he is willing, and, in fact, eager to pay.
"Last year, we had a great run and we got to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals," said Murray. "But, we finished seventh in the West and played some people that have moved on. It's hard for me to say that this team now is extremely better, but I can say from a talent and speed standpoint that we are now a little bit better of a team.
"All I can tell you is this will be a heck of a year for us and we will be competitive every night."
In the end, that is more than enough for Murray and the Ducks to ask for as an encore to last season's miracle run.