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Burning Questions for the Ducks

by Staff Writer / Anaheim Ducks
By John Ahlers

Ducks Play-by-Play Announcer

The conclusion of a rather curious season a year ago gave way to great hope heading into 2009-10, as the Ducks rose from a season-long funk that saw them mired around the .500 mark to within a scant few minutes of another Western Conference Finals appearance. However, the offseason was wrought with change and with that comes inevitable questions.

The first and not least of these inquiries is what will head coach Randy Carlyle do with his line combinations? With the return of Joffrey Lupul and the signing of Saku Koivu, Carlyle now has a collection of top-six forwards that he hasn’t seen the likes of since June of ’07 when he was sipping from the Stanley Cup. In years past, that would have been two solid scoring lines to complement his “matchup” defensive line and an energy line. But now that the once ever-present threesome of Sami Pahlsson, Rob Niedermayer and Travis Moen no longer patrols Orange County, the question begs an answer. Will Randy find a new trio of “defense-first” forwards that he trusts against opponents’ top lines or will he spread things out? 

Perhaps the answer is that he already has a line he trusts against the opponent’s best. “With the emergence of Getzlaf and Perry and last year Bobby Ryan, we feel we can put those guys up against anybody’s so called No. 1 line in the league,” Carlyle said recently. And with that comes the possibility of trying to create three units that can produce goals and defensive matchup problems. “When you have the ability to put Selanne and Koivu together and find a winger that can play with them, there are still some people that maybe you’d like to put in a third line position that have offensive skills behind them,” he continued.

So who might that winger be if it is not to be Lupul? Veteran Todd Marchant is a candidate in a couple different roles. He has the defensive responsibility and speed to complement Selanne and Koivu but he also has history with Lupul. They played together during Joffrey’s first run as a then-Mighty Duck, which included his highly successful scoring run in the’06 postseason. Other candidates could include Ryan Carter, who could center a line or move to the wing depending upon the role, and newly acquired hulking, speedy winger Evgeny Artyukhin, the freight train of a forechecker that came over from Tampa in an offseason trade.

The offseason trade of Chris Pronger brought a king’s ransom to the Ducks in return, but it is impossible to ignore the vacuum the big defenseman’s departure created on the Anaheim blueline. The return of Scott Niedermayer for another season does bring about a relative calm to everything – as his presence has been known to do – but with Francois Beauchemin also leaving as a free agent, there is no doubt that the most questions surrounding the Ducks in this camp swirl around their backline.

Without Pronger and Beauchemin, there are no returning set pairings from last year. Niedermayer had been paired with Beauchemin primarily over the past three-plus seasons while Pronger finished up last year with trade deadline acquisition Ryan Whitney. Another deadline deal brought James Wisniewski to Anaheim from Chicago, and while he figures to move into the top four, it remains to be seen who will grab the quarterbacking duties on the Ducks power play with Pronger now departed. Whitney certainly has experience in that role, having filled it during his time with the Penguins.

As pairings go, the Ducks do have the luxury of working with an ample supply of right-hand shots, something they have lacked in the past. Free agent signees Steve Eminger and Nick Boynton will see significant time this season for Anaheim and are joined by Wisniewski and returnee Sheldon Brookbank in the right-hand shot blueliners club. For left-hand shooting Niedermayer, a candidate for time as his partner could be 19-year-old Luca Sbisa. Coming to the Ducks with Lupul in the trade for Pronger, Sbisa has shown calm and presence beyond his years early on in Anaheim’s camp and in playing nearly a half season for the Flyers last year.

Last season both Jean-Sebastian Giguere and Jonas Hiller each appeared in 46 regular season games. But in the playoffs, Giguere appeared in only one of the 13 contests, while Hiller had a tremendous postseason run. It was a difficult year for Giguere both on and off the ice, triggering a rigorous offseason of training. Meanwhile, Hiller enters the final year of his contract looking to become a full-time No. 1 netminder in the NHL for the first time. While some pundits saw it as Hiller’s net coming into camp, Randy Carlyle squelched those notions early on. The head coach’s “Win and you’re in,” attitude has signaled to both that the job is for the taking, and neither of them has a death-grip on the Anaheim cage. 

A closer look tells you that it is a pivotal season for the Ducks in net. Giguere has two years remaining on his current deal and with Hiller’s showing last spring, they will be forced into some decisions by season’s end. Meanwhile, if any goalie in the league can bounce back from a disappointing season, it’s Giguere, as no one works harder than the one-time Conn Smythe trophy winner. In the end, the bottom line for Anaheim is that they possess two proven, playoff-tested goaltenders, a problem many other teams in the NHL can only wish they had.

Training camp is about getting down to an opening night roster of 23 and that in and of itself could be interesting for the Ducks. Beyond the top six forwards already mentioned, Anaheim has a logjam of qualified candidates to break camp. Much of this will hinge on decisions for Carlyle regarding the makeup of his lines. The list includes Petteri Nokelainen, Mike Brown, George Parros, Andrew Ebbett and the aforementioned Artyukhin, Carter and Marchant. That makes 13 forwards, a number that some teams consider a full complement. Offseason shoulder surgery has left Erik Christensen questionable for an opening night return while big Troy Bodie continues to try to make space for himself. It is conceivable that 14 could be the number of forwards that begin the season, but it would appear there is very little room up front. 

On the blueline the picture is even fuzzier. With Niedermayer, Whitney, Wisniewski, Eminger and Boynton apparently set to go, the competition really heats up from there. Still vying for a  spot is Brendan Mickelson who spent half a season with the big club a year ago, as well as Brookbank, who held down a roster spot throughout season’s end and the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Sbisa is in an interesting situation. The youngster has junior eligibility remaining with Lethbridge of the Western Hockey League and if he doesn’t appear to at least be in the top five in Carlyle’s group it may be difficult to keep him in Anaheim. NHL veteran Steve McCarthy, signed as a free agent in the summer, is also looking to land one of the coveted and scarce remaining spots on the back end. Considering the myriad of options the Ducks have here, don’t be surprised if they choose to begin the season with eight defensemen. 

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