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Ducks' patience rewarded by Niedermayer

by Phil Coffey

Anaheim Ducks defenseman Scott Niedermayer has decided to return to help defend the Cup.
A couple weeks back, Ice Age preached the value of patience. This week, we see how patience paid off for Brian Burke and the Anaheim Ducks.

When Scott Niedermayer originally said he was undecided about continuing his playing career this season, the Ducks were low key and patient with the star defenseman. Burke was a stalwart defender at every point, telling everyone willing to listen that Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne, who still is mulling things over, that both had earned the right to take all the time needed to make a decision.

”On July 1, Scott called me and said he was leaning strongly towards retirement,” Burke said. “My first call was to my boss, who immediately called Henry (Samueli) and we all had the rationale, ‘Just take your time here. You don’t have to decide to retire today. Take your time.' That’s been our message to Scott from the get-go: ‘Take your time. Don’t decide in a hasty manner and then miss the game and decide you want to come back and now you’ve signed those retirement papers and you can’t come back, so take your time and we’ll be patient.’ But we felt at the time it was the act of a captain also, to give me the heads-up, to allow me take steps on July 1 to replace the player, which we did, signing Mathieu Schneider to a free-agent contract.

”In those five months since then, we’ve encouraged Scotty to take his time and make the right decision, whether that was to retire and spend more time with his family or come back and play for us,” Burke said. “We’re obviously thrilled that from our perspective that he’s elected to come back and play. It’s an important day for us.”

The decision will result in changes to the Anaheim roster. While the Ducks have enough cap room to fit Niedermayer into their salary structure, there are other CBA ramifications that will result in Anaheim having to make a move or two when Niedermayer returns to the active roster. Burke said he’s OK with it.

”We don’t have a cap issue,” Burke said. “The reason I’m not going to go into more detail is quite frankly because I don’t understand it all either. … It’s called a tagging room issue. We not only have to have enough salary cap room to bring a player in, he’s also got to fit within the tagging room specifications for future years and we have a tagging room issue. So, there will be a change before he comes back in, but again, that was well under way before his phone call. I have to move contractual obligations for next year.”

Niedermayer, now 34, played a huge role in the Ducks winning the Stanley Cup last season, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason’s most valuable player. He estimated Wednesday that he is seven to 10 days away from playing.

Niedermayer will work out by himself until the team returns from its current road trip next week, at which point he will skate with the team.

”He is not a roster player until we say he is,” Burke said. “We’ll see how his fitness levels are and then we’ll make a decision. My guess is dealing with his conditioning fanaticism that we’re looking at 7-10 days and then you could see him in a game next week.”

Patience is indeed a virtue and has paid off for the Ducks in getting Niedermayer back. But Burke said a similar scenario will not occur for 2008-09.

”He’s made it clear that his commitment to come back now is for this season only,” Burke said. “And I’ve made it clear that we’re not going through this same dance again. If he feels he’s going to retire at the end of this season, I’m going to produce those voluntarily retired papers within about two minutes. I respect what Scotty has gone through. … This is a warrior and he’s a great hockey player and he’s earned that right. I don’t know if he’s earned it twice. It did force us to stay on the sidelines and keep some money inactive and refrain from making some moves. I think we owed him that once. I’m not sure we owe him that twice.”

A crying shame -- Teemu Selanne’s status remains unchanged. An unrestricted free agent, he is in a different category than Scott Niedermayer, but has indicated he would only play for the Ducks should he opt to return.

On Wednesday, Ducks GM Brian Burke said the only news he had on Selanne was the birth of a baby daughter.

”Sirpa and Teemu had a baby girl today,” Burke said. “Everyone is fine. It’s great news. He had three wild boys. Now he gets the girl, so, we’re all excited for him. But no change on his status with us.

”Hopefully that baby will cry a lot.”

Devils looking like Sutter’s team -- Perhaps it was the long road trip to start the season. Perhaps it was a case of getting acquainted. Whatever the case, the initial marriage between Brent Sutter and the New Jersey Devils appeared a little rocky.

Sutter demanded his team play a more aggressive game and the players seemed caught between the defensive style of past seasons and Sutter’s desires. Now, something has clicked and the Devils are rolling, leaving the Atlantic Division basement in the rear-view mirror.

”Well, I think there's different things,” Sutter said in factoring in the bad start. “We had to play our first nine games on the road. There have been a lot of changes here between players and coaching staff and the trainers. We've had up to 17 personnel changes. It takes some time for everyone to get acclimatized and get accustomed to each other. Yet we knew that coming in. I wasn't blinded by that. I understood it could take us a while. I think everyone's in sync now and we're finding our way right now.”

Under new head coach Brent Sutter, the
New Jersey Devils are thriving again.

The Devils’ way right now has seen them click off eight straight wins heading into Friday night’s game against Washington.

”I think the important thing is that we've found our way, how we want to play a team game,” Sutter said. “We've had certain things that have taken place. We started the year without Colin White on defense, who can play on any team's top two defensemen. And we started without Jamie Langenbrunner, who is a top-six forward. You know, when you get those guys back, it adds experience. Marty (Brodeur) is finding his way now and is playing extremely well.

”You're getting goaltending, getting those injured guys back, everyone getting accustomed to each other and exactly how we want to play and how we need to play within the team concept, we're getting results from it. It's an every-day thing. … We're just taking it a game at a time. We're focusing on the team we're going to play, preparing to play them, we play within ourselves and do the things that give ourselves the best chance to succeed.”

Perhaps another factor is both players and coach are used to one another now.

”It's a learning curve both ways,” Sutter said. “Getting to know each other, understanding personalities, them understanding me, what makes an individual play up to his highest level. You know, there're guys that have already been pros for six, seven, eight, 10, 12 years, and you have to give them at certain times the benefit of the doubt. The communication's been outstanding. The players know the way I am and understand where I'm coming from, as do I them. That part has worked well. It took time because, again, I never coached any of these guys before and they didn't really know me, outside of playing against some of them. I didn't know them outside of watching some of them or playing against some of them or watching them on TV. It's taken some time. Our coaching staff has helped me tremendously with Tommy (Albelin), Johnny (MacLean), Larry (Robinson) and Jacques (Caron). They've been great. We work very well together. The players see that. They see we're well-prepared every night. We're structured. Again, players read into all that. They become a very structured team.”

Don’t panic, Penguins -- The season hasn’t seen the Pittsburgh Penguins dominate play yet. But a guy who knows all about great expectations, Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky, is advising Penguins fans to put the panic button away.

“I remember getting knocked out one year by Los Angles in five games, and people wanted to dismantle the Oilers,” Gretzky told reporters, thinking back to the 1981-82 season. “But you have to take a step back and realize that your best players are 19, 20 and 21 years old, and there is a lot ahead.

“You are going to have times where youth shows a little bit,” Gretzky said. “But these young players are going to be great, and they will an opportunity to win a championship for that organization. They’ll be fine.”

Toews’ time -- The Chicago Blackhawks have written one of the season’s feel-good stories thanks to the strong play of so many of their young players, like Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith.

And Jonathan Toews has been such a revelation that he has completely screwed up coach Denis Savard’s leadership plans.

Blackhawks rookie Jonathan Toews (with the
White Sox' Jim Thome) was recently named an
alternate captain by head coach Denis Savard.

Savard told reporters earlier this season he didn’t envision any of the young guys in leadership roles this season. But the 19-year-old Toews has changed his mind.

“He earned it,” Savard said. “It was tough not to give it to him.”

Toews justifiably was happy with being named an assistant captain.

“There’s been a lot of talk that maybe I could be part of that leadership group down the road, that I have maybe some of those qualities, and to get compliments like that is a huge honor considering the experience we have in this locker room,” he told reporters. “It gives me a lot of confidence that maybe the guys already do look at me that way, but I think most of all I’m not going to change too much, just keep playing the way I have been and doing the same things and try to make plays that make a difference. I’m going to try not to disappoint and go out and do my job.”

Veteran forward Martin Lapointe can’t sing Toews’ praises enough.

“Either you have it or you don’t, and I think Jonathan has all the tools, all the assets to be a great leader in this League,” Lapointe told reporters. “I think Jonathan’s more of a quiet leader. With his work ethic on and off the ice, I think guys look at him and see how hard he works and how he takes that out on the ice. He’s a great role model for the other young guys on the team.

“There’s no such thing as being too young. I think he’s ready for it. He’s going to be the captain here, I’ve said it from the start of training camp. I wouldn’t be surprised if next season he’s wearing the ‘C.’ “

Farewell Wes Walz -- Wes Walz decided it was time and has left the NHL and the Minnesota Wild on his own terms.

After taking a leave of absence to ponder his future, the original member of the Wild opted to hang up his skates at age 37.

“The way I have been playing has really taken a toll on me and it’s just worn me down,” Walz said. “After many sleepless nights, I believe in my heart that it’s time to move on into the next phase of my life.”

Material from personal interviews, wire services, newspaper, and league and team sources was used in this report.




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