ANAHEIM, Calif. - As they stumbled through the regular season, the Anaheim Ducks started making the type of roster moves that could've signalled they were entering a rebuilding phase.
Instead, the Ducks were just reloading. After making some roster adjustments, the 2007 champs transition from being a marginal playoff team to one that made a significant run in the post-season.
After knocking out the Presidents' Trophy-winning San Jose Sharks in the first round, the eighth-seeded Ducks went the distance with the defending champion Detroit Red Wings.
It took Daniel Cleary's net-crashing goal with three minutes to play in Game 7 for the Red Wings to eliminate Anaheim.
Although some roster changes are expected in the coming months, the Ducks' strong late-season play and playoff run means Anaheim may have already retooled.
"With this group, we've had three decent runs in the playoffs in four years, I see no reason not to try and continue that," said general manager Bob Murray who effectively assessed what his team needed to change after Brian Burke resigned to become GM in Toronto in November.
"Rebuilding is not in our vocabulary right now, I don't like that word," Murray said.
While the Ducks will face the same questions they did after winning the Stanley Cup in 2007 - whether 35-year-old star defenceman Scott Niedermayer and 38-year-old forward Teemu Selanne will return - Murray has already set his team up so that it's in much better position to adjust to the loss of either player than they were two years ago.
The Ducks already have top forwards Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan locked into place.
Defenceman Chris Pronger and recently arriving Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski - whom Murray acquired at the trade deadline - are set to form a strong core.
Goaltender Jonas Hiller was strong in the playoffs and will enter his third NHL season and could combine with 2003 Conn Smythe winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere to give Anaheim a solid tandem.
Given the core in place, if Niedermayer or Selanne do not return, Murray will not likely have to make the type of moves that Burke made in 2007, when he provided two-year contracts to forward Todd Bertuzzi (US$8 million) and defenceman Mathieu Schneider ($11 million.)
"We have some wiggle room, we got out of the hole a little bit," Murray said.
However, they know the team is a whole lot better with Niedermayer.
"We're not that far away, we could have another good run again, but it all depends on Scotty. He's irreplaceable," Murray said.
Selanne is under contract for next year, and both he and Niedermayer have expressed interest in playing in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
When asked about his future plans after Game 7 on Thursday, Niedermayer said, "I haven't thought about it. ... I'll figure it out. I'll do it as soon as I can to help (Murray) and the team."
Even with both star players in the mix to start this season, the Ducks struggled to meet expectations for most of the season.
Anaheim was out of the playoff picture in 12th place in the Western Conference well into March.
But after making four deals near the deadline and settling with Hiller as the team's No. 1 goalie, the Ducks posted a league-best 10-2-1 record over the final 13 games to secure the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.
"The trade deadline put finality on who was going to be a Duck and who wasn't," coach Randy Carlyle said. "That cloud had been over the hockey club for the better part of six months ... obviously it had affected our group."
"Once we started to do the little things and to play as team, they found success and enjoyed one another," Carlyle said.
Also, the Ducks will need to figure out whether they can keep defenceman Francois Beauchemin, who will become an unrestricted free agent.
Beauchemin missed 62 games with an ACL tear but returned to solid form in the playoffs. He often logs as much ice time as Pronger and Niedermayer and could get a nice offer in the free-agent market.
Veteran forwards Todd Marchant and Rob Niedermayer will also be unrestricted free agents.