A 'Mighty' season for Ducks
In the immediate aftermath of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim looked like they had precious little to feel good about. Eyes were downcast. Glances were somber. A tear or two trickled down the face into the scraggy playoff beards that had become the norm for two grueling months.
But as time will heal the wounds of a Finals series that went the distance, the passing of time will further reveal just how far the Mighty Ducks have come in a very short time.
"I think the guys should be proud to get to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup," veteran center Adam Oates said. "You have to play great to get there. Obviously, there's a bitter feeling but the guys should be proud of what they accomplished."
Consider that the Ducks were an afterthought at the conclusion of the 2001-02 season, finishing in 13th place in the Western Conference, 25 points out of a postseason berth. There appeared to be little reason for optimism.
But the decision to promote Bryan Murray to general manager from coach, and his subsequent decision to hire Mike Babcock, the coach of the team's American Hockey League affiliate, to run the Anaheim bench paid almost instant dividends.
"We have had a special year," Murray said. "We were just an OK team the first half. The second half, we were among the best teams in the League."
Murray knew he had to change the culture of losing that was becoming commonplace in the dressing room. His team needed a jolt of optimism and he also wanted to give the team's fan base something to get excited about. So, Murray overhauled the roster. As a result nine of the players who dressed in the Finals were Mighty Duck newcomers.
Murray made wise use of the free-agent market. He signed center Adam Oates for playmaking skills and veteran smarts. Defenseman Fredrik Olausson, a former Duck, came over from Detroit, fresh off a Stanley Cup-winning experience. And Jason Krog proved to be a strong defensive forward.
Young defenseman Kurt Sauer, who played for Babcock in Spokane of the Western Hockey League, signed in early June and would become a fixture on the Anaheim defense.
Murray then explored the trade market and pulled off a blockbuster deal with, ironically, the New Jersey Devils, the team Anaheim would meet in the 2003 Finals. Forward Jeff Friesen, unhappy in Anaheim, and defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky were sent to New Jersey for winger Petr Sykora, a proven NHL scorer, and prospects Mike Commodore and Jean Francois Damphousse, who would eventually be traded to Calgary for center Rob Niedermayer, another important Cup cog.
Murray also got the organization's own players signed to contracts, including goalie Martin Gerber and forwards Stanislav Chistov and Alexei Smirnov.
Team captain Paul Kariya signed a one-year deal and longtime teammate Steve Rucchin agreed on a multi-year deal. Center Matt Cullen and defenseman Ruslan Salei got two-year contracts, while defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski and forward Sami Pahlsson got one-year deals.
The pieces were falling into place, but both Murray and Babcock realized the bulk of the work lay ahead.
Rucchin's return was a boon for Kariya, who regained his scoring touch, scoring 25 goals and 56 assists in 82 games. Babcock mixed line combinations throughout the season and Kariya also enjoyed great success playing with Oates after the veteran center returned on Nov. 27 following surgery a month earlier to repair broken bones in his left hand. It took Oates time to regain his form, but he finished with nine goals and 36 assists.
It was the second straight year, and his fourth time in nine NHL seasons, that Kariya played every game. That's important because Kariya's career was threatened by four concussions in recent seasons. He credits a helmet with extra padding and the use of a mouth guard for helping him avoid further injury.
In need of a defenseman who could be the power-play quarterback after Tverdovsky was traded, Murray engineered a key midseason deal on Jan. 30 when he sent Cullen, Pavel Trnka and a 2003 fourth-round Draft choice to the Florida Panthers for Sandis Ozolinsh and fellow defenseman Lance Ward. Ozolinsh gave the Mighty Ducks five goals and 13 assists in 31 games and was plus-10 after finishing in the minus category in his previous three seasons in Florida and with the Carolina Hurricanes. He teamed nicely with Sauer, whose dismal early season plus-minus numbers turned around when his role was more clearly defined -- watch "Ozo's back."
Those moves made the Mighty Ducks a better team but it was Murray's deals at the March 11 trading deadline that turned a team struggling to make the playoffs into a Stanley Cup contender. Murray acquired veteran Steve "Stumpy" Thomas from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for a fifth-round pick in the 2003 Entry Draft. He also sent Commodore and Damphousse to the Calgary Flames for Niedermayer. The latter, a standout with the 1996 Stanley Cup Finalist Panthers when he had 26 goals and 35 assists, had never returned to that level due to a series of head injuries. He had been a disappointment in his two seasons in Calgary and few but Murray noticed his play had improved after Darryl Sutter was named head coach in midseason.
Murray wasn't surprised by the contributions of the newcomers.
"We knew what we wanted, first of all," he said. "Oates and Sykora, we wanted to get points and they have a great history of doing that. Ozolinsh is an offensive defenseman, but it wasn't just the points, he lifted the whole overall quality of play. Thomas and Niedermayer came in as role players and the coaching staff had a plan that fit those guys properly into the system. And, we got a little lucky, which you have to do. The key men performed to the level we expected if not better."
Niedermayer was switched to right wing on a line with Rucchin and rugged left wing Mike Leclerc. That gave the Mighty Ducks a big line that could check the opposition's top lines while adding some scoring. Oates centered Kariya and Sykora on the Mighty Ducks' most dangerous line while Thomas added a dangerous scorer to the line centered by Samuel Pahlsson with Chistov on the left wing.