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Ducks GM Murray adept at changing on the fly

by Eric Stephens
ANAHEIM -- It had the look of a general manager walking a tightrope. The words could have been these: "I'm not giving up on you guys, but what we have here isn't working and I can't afford to let some of you go and get nothing in return. If I have to rebuild this team, I might as well start now."

That passage was never uttered by Bob Murray. But it could have been. Since he took over for Brian Burke as the Anaheim Ducks' GM in November after his former boss stepped down to run the Toronto Maple Leafs, Murray has steadily reworked his club on the fly and made it younger, while easing some of the burden of spending right up to the salary cap in order to stay among the Western Conference's elite teams.

But it was the 54-year-old executive's work a week before the March 4 trade deadline and on that fast-paced day itself that helped save a seemingly lost season and put the Ducks in position to stun the top-seeded San Jose Sharks in these best-of-7 West quarterfinals.

In a series of trades done as his team hovered at the edge of the playoff picture, Murray sent away four big contributors to the 2007 Stanley Cup championship -- Chris Kunitz, Samuel Pahlsson, Travis Moen, Kent Huskins -- and dealt veteran defenseman Steve Montador, a regular in the Ducks' lineup.

What he got in return were two defensemen, Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski, a checking center in Petteri Nokelainen, a winger with some skill in Erik Christensen and a promising prospect in Boston University center Nick Bonino.

The perception, however, was that Murray hoped the Ducks could stay in the playoff picture, but couldn't sacrifice their future for one last-ditch run to the postseason with the current core. But when he traded Kunitz and prospect Eric Tangradi to Pittsburgh for Whitney on Feb. 26, Murray said, "This is not selling today. This is making us better."

Many took that as Murray saying the Ducks will be better -- in the long run. Whitney, a smooth, puck-moving defenseman, was signed through 2013 and his presence could soften the blow if Scott Niedermayer didn't come back next season and/or Chris Pronger was traded.

Little did anyone know that Murray had a larger plan in mind. With Pahlsson and Moen set to become unrestricted free agents July 1 and neither close in talks on extending their contracts, the Anaheim GM made his moves.

Murray tapped his Chicago connections and got Wisniewski from the Blackhawks for Pahlsson. He sent Montador to Boston for Nokelainen to fill the checking center hole and dealt Moen and Huskins to San Jose for Bonino, goalie prospect Timo Pielmeier and a draft pick. For good measure, Murray picked up Christensen from Atlanta for center Eric O'Dell.

But they held onto Pronger and Niedermayer, whose names came up in speculation when the Ducks were thought to be in the mood to sell.

"We felt we didn't have to tear this hockey club down," Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said Sunday, ahead of Game 6 against the San Jose Sharks. "We felt that we weren't getting obviously what we thought we should out of the group. For whatever reason, and there's numerous ones in our mind that had an effect on that.

"Management is there to provide guidelines and to provide the staples of which they believe the hockey club needs to play to. There are salary-cap issues, there's all kinds of issues when it comes to talking about trades. The money factor, the financial factor is an even larger part of making deals now in the NHL. And unrestricted free agency is a huge issue. I think we had 10 or 11 guys. You knew there was going to be some form of change. And we just took the trade deadline to get it done."

As the Ducks hold a 3-2 series lead against the Sharks in preparation for Tuesday night at the Honda Center, Niedermayer said he wanted to keep an open mind after the flurry of trades changed the dynamic of the dressing room.

"I've learned through time that he's in the position to make those decision and we're not," Niedermayer said. "So I really didn't overthink it. You come to the rink with the guys that are here and your job is go out and try to perform as well as you can. I didn't look at it or even try to figure it out. It's worked out well."

Has it ever. All of the everyday players the Ducks picked up have contributed to one extent or the other, first in their stirring stretch run to make the postseason and now in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"We felt we didn't have to tear this hockey club down. We felt that we weren't getting obviously what we thought we should out of the group. For whatever reason, and there's numerous ones in our mind that had an effect on that."
-- Randy Carlyle

The biggest difference has been on the blue line. Whitney has meshed with Pronger when other partners couldn't and Wisniewski has been a revelation alongside Niedermayer. Francois Beauchemin's return from ACL surgery and an earlier acquisition, Sheldon Brookbank, form a solid third pairing.

Murray understands the importance of defense, having spent all 15 of his NHL seasons on the Blackhawks' blue line. And he didn't like what he was seeing when the Ducks had to rely too much on untested rookies in light of Beauchemin's injury.

"Going forward, I needed to do something here," Murray told in February. "I'm a big believer in building out from the back end forward. The back end wasn't good enough."

Carlyle also believes in defense, having plied the trade for 17 seasons with a Norris Trophy to his name. Finding a way to improve the back end was something he and Murray readily agreed upon.

"I don't think that's rocket science from a hockey standpoint," Carlyle said. "Most teams, when they're building a hockey club or making changes, would like to improve your blue line no matter where you're at. Or have more depth on the blue line.

"You can say whatever you want. You need offense, but you need defense."

The additions of Whitney and Wisniewski have eased the burden on Niedermayer and Pronger. With both newcomers able to log 20-25 minutes of ice time, Niedermayer and Pronger are averaging 24-25 minutes instead of the 28-30 they've often become accustomed to skating.

"It definitely helped," Niedermayer said. "When Beauch gets hurt, you look around and there were definitely were younger guys playing important roles. Defense is a position that you've got to learn by experience. You've got to get out there and you've got to play.

"To bring in some guys like that who have been in the League a bit and have some of that experience, it's helped us a lot for sure."

The two have also had an impact against the Sharks, with Whitney recording assists in each of the first four games and Wisniewski assisting on Bobby Ryan's power-play goal in Game 2 and scoring his first playoff goal in Game 3.

More than that, the talkative duo has been credited with livening up a dressing room that had grown quiet over time.

"I think that's both of our personalities," Wisniewski said. "You can ask any of the Chicago guys. I like to have fun in the room and I probably take more heat than anybody. It's all in good fun. I just like hanging out with people. I like my co-workers. I like my teammates and I love hanging out with them.

"It's more fun coming to the rink and enjoying being here. Hopefully we're going to come to the rink a lot longer so you've got to make it fun and amusing every time you step in the locker room."

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