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Ducks left to ponder early playoff loss

by Doug Ward

The Anaheim Ducks' lack of offense helped contribute to their first-round exit in the playoffs this season. Watch Ducks highlight video
Talk about an ending with a twist. Anaheim went 47-27-8, picked up 102 points and finished the regular season tied for fifth overall in the NHL. As a reward for all their hard work and success, the Ducks ended up stuck behind the Kings (32-43-7, 71 points), whose season ended just 15 days earlier, in the battle for Southern California's best tee times.

It's easy to blame Anaheim's stunning early departure from the Stanley Cup Playoffs (in a six-game, first-round loss to Dallas) on a lack of offense and a lack of discipline. Also, after possessing the Midas touch last season, General Manager Brian Burke is has been second-guessed for allowing Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne to sell him on their own personal mini-plans. (You pick the games you want to attend.)

But no team has repeated as Stanley Cup champs since Detroit in 1998, and one look at the Ducks’ roster makes it easy to understand why. When a team as talented as Anaheim is reduced to the role of a tourney mid-major, there does seem to something to the notion of staying hungry.

It's hard to fault Burke — who brought Niedermayer and Selanne to Anaheim in the first place — for easing up on the reins on his two stars. In doing so, Burke was seeing to it that two of his best players were around for the playoffs instead of not at all. It's also hard to blame Burke for unloading center Andy McDonald in order to clear cap space for Niedermayer's return. With Jean-Sebastien Giguere in goal and Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Mathieu Schneider on the blue line, the Ducks appeared otherworldly from the goal on out, which is where playoff games are typically won.

The biggest question facing the Ducks' offseason has already been answered, with Burke announcing he will stick around and honor the final year of his contract instead of bolting for Toronto, where the Maple Leafs viewed him as a savior.

Instead of trying to restore the glory in Toronto, Burke will try to keep it from fading in Anaheim. His task will be keeping the Ducks from joining Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Stompin' Tom Connors on hockey's long line of one-hit wonders.

For that to happen, Burke will need to juice up an offense that ranked 28th in the 30-team League. The Ducks scored just 2.40 goals per game during the regular season, and their power play wasn't much better. It ranked 20th in the league, converting on just 16.6 percent of its chances.

Burke will look into trading for more offense. He will also demand that Niedermayer and Selanne either go hard all season long — or go home.

Then there's the question of discipline. It's easy to call for reform in Anaheim, where the Ducks were the NHL's most-penalized team in 2007-08. It wouldn't be a stretch to say the team's Cup hopes were lost in the penalty box, as Anaheim gave up 10 power-play goals in its playoff loss to Dallas. The Ducks didn't just take a lot of penalties, they took untimely ones, too.

The Ducks led 1-0 after two periods in Game 6 at Dallas, putting them a mere 20 minutes away from bringing the series back to Anaheim for a Game 7. But Ryan Carter took a holding penalty on the first shift of the third period, the Stars' Stephane Robidas scored and the Ducks never recovered. Fittingly, any chance of an Anaheim miracle comeback ended when Pronger was whistled for cross-checking at 18:21.

The Ducks led the NHL in penalty minutes the previous season, too, but their penalty killing was better (5th in 2006-07 at 85.1 percent, compared with 12th this season at 83.1 percent). Playing on the edge caught up with the Ducks in the playoffs, when they killed off just 73.7 percent of the Stars’ manpower advantages. During their run to the Cup, Anaheim successfully killed off 86.8 percent of the opposition's power plays.

In addition to figuring out if the Ducks need to take fewer penalties or kill more of them, Burke will also face the challenge of keeping his team together during the salary cap era. That didn't go so well last summer, when Dustin Penner’s defection to Edmonton via a $50 million offer sheet cost Burke a power forward and a friendship with Oilers GM Kevin Lowe, the man who had hand-delivered Pronger to Anaheim a year earlier.

The scenario could repeat itself with Corey Perry, who is scheduled to become a restricted free agent July 1. Perry has said he wants to stay in Anaheim — but, like Jerry Maguire, the Ducks would love to get that sentiment on paper.

Once again, the Ducks will wait to learn of the future plans of both Niedermayer and Selanne, although those decisions won't drag on all summer. Selanne said he would inform the team of his intentions by the July 1 start of the free agent season.

The Ducks' defense of their Stanley Cup is history, but their legacy might not be. At least not yet. With the great goaltending of Giguere, and the presence of Pronger and Niedermayer (should the latter return) on the blue line, the Ducks already possess the tent poles that could have them back playing under the Stanley Cup big top in June 2009. 

For whatever reason, the Ducks were missing something this season. But having to watch the last three rounds of the playoffs instead of trying to defend their championship might be just what they need.

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