John Ahlers enters his sixth season as the play-by-play voice of the Anaheim Ducks. He offers his thoughts on the upcoming Ducks campaign exclusively on AnaheimDucks.com
DUCKS DEALT DIFFICULT HAND
By John Ahlers
Repeating as Stanley Cup Champions has proven to be a difficult task as no team in the NHL has pulled off the feat in the last decade. However, in the salary cap era that emerged from the lockout of 2004-2005, the task of putting back-to-back titles on ice has become more daunting.
Enter the Anaheim Ducks of 2007-2008. Like the Carolina Hurricanes before them, Randy Carlyle’s team has a different look from that of the group that skated around Honda Center on June 6, hoisting Lord Stanley’s gift to North American ice hockey. Unlike the Canes though, the Ducks challenge entering the season does not stop there. Among the list of obstacles in Anaheim’s way is a shorter offseason than even those who accompanied them late into last spring’s Playoff tournament, but also key chemistry hurdles, a very early scheduling test and the ever-present target that appears on the defending champions’ back.
The roster changes that Anaheim has undertaken are not the type any team would brush off, let alone the top team from the previous year. Gone from the Ducks are the top two goal producers from last season in Teemu Selanne (contemplating retirement) and Dustin Penner (free agent signing with Edmonton). Not only are their 77 goals looking to be replaced, but their collective absence affects both of the proposed top two lines coming into the season. That, coupled with Captain Scott Niedermayer’s continued retirement contemplation leaves the offense in need for more than one individual to step up. The veteran defenseman not only led all blueliners in the NHL in point production,, but leaves an on-ice leadership void as well.
“It’s the hand we’re dealt,” said Carlyle, never one to allow excuses for his team. But who could blame the third-year Anaheim Head Coach if he admitted it wasn’t the “Aces” he had hoped for from the hockey gods when looking at his cards? Due to the Ducks’ participation in the NHL’s season-opening weekend in London, England against the Kings, Anaheim and Los Angels open the year four days earlier than anyone else. Because of that, training camp began three days prior to the other 28 teams, and as a result so did exhibition play. When the Ducks laced them up at Anaheim Ice to open camp September 11, it had been just 97 days since they finished off the Ottawa Senators in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Regarding the over 5,000-mile trip to open the season Carlyle was open, yet consistent. “Coaches don’t jump for joy,” he said. “We’re never happy with scheduling. No one is going to say it’s ideal, but I don’t look at it as a disruption, I look at it as a challenge.”
Perhaps he was also referring to the entirety of the trip after the international flavor is through. As the stateside return of the Ducks will stop off at three Eastern Time Zone locations in what just happens to be each club’s home opener. They’ll lay over in Detroit two regular season wins all time) followed by Columbus and Pittsburgh on back-to-back nights. “It’s going to be a tough five games to start the season, but we have to deal with that,” said General Manager Brian Burke.
No matter how well the team fares in those first five games though, the bigger question may be who occupies the top six forward positions for Carlyle after those contests. The chemistry of his top two lines became a concern when one third of the top six from the Cup championship did not return for that early training camp. “It’s a huge concern when your group has been together a while,” Carlyle said while preparing his team for the overseas journey. “We know that McDonald and Kunitz and Getzlaf and Perry can play together.”
However, in true head coaching form, Carlyle admitted it’s not his nature to be patient in finding the right chemistry to round out those pairings, nor can he be. “I want it now, as soon as I can get it” he said. “We don’t have very much time to get ready with such a short time frame that we’ve been afforded.”
In trying to find the right mix, Carlyle experimented with breaking up the Getzlaf/Perry duo. Getzlaf found himself with free agent addition Todd Bertuzzi and 2005 first round pick Bobby Ryan. The line combined for three goals in the final pre-season game with Ryan assisting on four. That left McDonald centering Kunitz and Perry on the other top line.
As for acquiring that all-important chemistry with a new linemate, the players seemed pragmatic. “It does take time,” said Getzlaf. “You’ll know if he’ll (a new linemate) fit on the ice,” he added. But Kunitz had a different perspective about adapting to a new member of his line. “I don’t think it ever gets easier,” the former All American at Ferris State said. “It’s going to be tough, but the road trip will help. Chemistry away from the rink is important.”
One thing the season-opening road trip will provide the Ducks is ample time to bond. By the time they return to Southern California to unfurl the Stanley Cup Championship banner on October 10, they will have been gone 13 days.
However, the defending champions’ target will not have left them at that time. While Anaheim will carry that moniker throughout the season, consider their recent history when weighing its burden. Over the course of the past two seasons the Ducks have played every team from the Northwest Division in a playoff series, defeating all but Edmonton. That should bring enough venom in itself when they meet those teams, coupled with the off-ice issues between the Oilers and Ducks and you know there are no easy games there. Then there are the four Pacific Division rivals that appear eight times each on the schedule and the four annual meetings with Detroit, whom Anaheim has met in the playoffs four times, including last season’s Western Conference Final. That leaves very few nights on the docket when redemption will not be on the minds of the Ducks’ opponents.
But know this about this club and its coach. They are not looking for sympathy. The Ducks wouldn’t have many of these “challenges” were they not the defending Stanley Cup champions. As Burke commented when asked about the season-opening London trip, “When the league asks you to go, you go.” And that is precisely the point. The league is going to ask this team to go all year and in true Ducks form, they will go. Randy Carlyle’s earlier quote is all encompassing. It is the hand they’ve been dealt and now it’s time to play it.