Expectations were already high for the Ducks' upcoming season soon after Anaheim was eliminated in the 2006 Western Conference Finals. With veterans like Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne and Andy McDonald coming back and returning youngsters like Chris Kunitz, Francois Beauchemin, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner (each with solid NHL debuts last season), the Ducks already looked like contenders for next year's Stanley Cup.
But the Ducks' potential became ever more enticing with the blockbuster acquisition of standout defenseman Chris Pronger via a trade with the Edmonton Oilers. The 2000 Hart Trophy (league MVP) and Norris Trophy (top defenseman) winner joins Niedermayer to give the Ducks two of the top defensemen in the NHL.
Meanwhile, less ballyhooed, yet effective, improvements were made to the Ducks lineup. That included the signings of veterans Travis Green and Ian Moran to bolster the team's depth. Meanwhile, left wing Stanislov Chistov returns to the Ducks after playing last season in his native Russia.
As a result the Ducks are in the unique position of being the hunted, rather than the hunter. Several pundits have listed Anaheim among the top teams in the Western Conference and a likely candidate to compete for the Cup. In fact, both Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News predicted the Ducks to go all the way.
"The bar has been raised," says head coach Randy Carlyle. "Our expectations probably coincide with the growth we displayed last year, but it's going to be a lot tougher to duplicate. We're not going to sneak into any buildings."
Adds Selanne, "This year is the first time everybody knows how good we can be. That's a big, big step forward."
The success of the '06-'07 Ducks will ride on a number of factors. Selanne and McDonald will hope to duplicate or improve on the seasons they each put together last year, as Selanne had 40 goals for the first time since the 1998-99 season and McDonald shattered previous career bests in goals (34) and assists (54).
While those two plan to do plenty of scoring this season, the Ducks will also hope to get added offense from Kunitz. While skating on the top line with McDonald and Selanne for much of last season, Kunitz chipped in with 19 goals and 22 assists.
Second-year players Getzlaf, Perry and Penner, each had solid rookie seasons and look to be even better in '06'07. Penner showed extra promise by coming on strong in last year's playoffs. Another playoff standout, center Todd Marchant, provides depth and veteran leadership to the forward corps. Marchant was second on the Ducks in playoff scoring last year with three goals and 10 assists. Fellow center Samuel Pahlsson is back to provide help on the penalty-killing unit while also chipping in on the offensive end (11 goals last year). More forward help will come from Rob Niedermayer and newcomers Green and Chistov, as well as rookie Ryan Shannon, who had 27 goals and 59 assists in his first minor league season.
Either Scott Niedermayer or Pronger will likely be on the ice for the majority of games (and often team together on special teams), but the defense will also rely on veterans like Sean O'Donnell, Ian Moran and Joe DiPenta. Beauchemin hopes to duplicate a solid rookie season in which he paired most of the year with Niedermayer. Rookie Shane O'Brien had a solid training camp and made the roster just prior to the season opener.
J.S. Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov will complete for the top spot in goal, after Bryzgalov re-signed with the Ducks following a stellar performance in last year's postseason. Giguere had a respectable 30-15-11 record with a 2.66 GAA and a .911 save percentage during the regular season. He starts this campaign seemingly free of the injury troubles that plagued him last season.
But no matter which of those two are in net, they will be bolstered by a defense that with the addition of Pronger quickly became one of the best in the NHL. That's one of the main reasons the Ducks - with new colors and a new logo - find themselves in a new position of frontrunner. But Pronger, who has played 12 seasons in the league, knows that expectations mean nothing until the team hits the ice.
"I don't really look at that too much because we haven't played a game yet," Pronger said. "Everything can always look good on paper. You've got to go out and perform on the ice. I think we're going to let our play speak for itself."