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Ducks see Getzlaf's future in Thornton

by Eric Stephens
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Looking at Ryan Getzlaf play with the puck as if it were on a string and impose his will on opponents, Anaheim Ducks coach Randy Carlyle readily sees what his big young center can ultimately become.
Hint: It's the guy who'll be across from him throughout their playoff series.

"There's a comparison that I think we use with him, and that's Joe Thornton," Carlyle said. "Joe Thornton was a good player for a number of years. But he found a way to elevate his game to another level. And that doesn't happen overnight.

"Again, it's part of the understanding that it might take some guys a little longer. But we're still going to be persistent in our pushing Getzlaf to that area."

It is the San Jose Sharks against the Anaheim Ducks in the all-California bracket of the Western Conference quarterfinals -- but it's also the 6-foot-5, 221-pound Getzlaf against the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Thornton in arguably the most intriguing matchup of the best-of-7 battle: two broad-shouldered specimens with feathery hands and the ability to dominate.

In the Ducks' 2-0 Game 1 victory, Getzlaf came up with the impact plays in the decisive third period. His quick cross-ice pass set up Scott Niedermayer's tiebreaking power-play goal, and he finished off the Sharks with a 30-foot wrist shot that sizzled past San Jose goalie Evgeni Nabokov late in the game.

Thornton was kept off the scoresheet, as well as all of his teammates. The Sharks' main man will look to make his own impact in Game 2 Sunday night at HP Pavilion. But he also had praise for his counterpart, nothing that he could see the promise in Getzlaf when the one-time first-round pick came up as a rookie in 2006.

"You knew he had good hands, and you know he's big and physical," Thornton said. "You knew he was going to be an elite player in the League."

It didn't take long for San Jose coach Todd McLellan to rattle off what makes Getzlaf tough to handle.

"Size. Battle. Skill. There's not many tools that Ryan doesn't have," McLellan said. "He's got to be one of the top 10 players in the League right now, in my opinion. To say that we're going to be physical against him -- well, that'd be great but he's a big man. To say that we're going to skate with him -- that'd be great, but he can skate. To say we're going to take away his shooting lanes, well, he can pass."

In one way, Getzlaf has already surpassed Thornton in that he has a Stanley Cup ring -- something the Sharks' star lacks. Jumbo Joe, however, has all other hardware.
In 2006, Thornton captured the Hart and Art Ross trophies as the League's most valuable player and leading scorer following his early-season trade from Boston to San Jose. For the first time, he played in the Winter Olympics for Canada. Thornton has also surpassed 100 points on three occasions and been named to the All-Star Game seven times.

But Getzlaf is beginning to pile up his own list of accomplishments. He was voted into the All-Star Game as a first-time starter, and has increased his point total over his four seasons from 39 as a rookie to 58, 82 and 91 -- sixth in NHL this season. His 66 assists in 2008-09 were third, tying him with Washington's Nicklas Backstrom and trailing only Pittsburgh stars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.

Anaheim defenseman Ryan Whitney knows about playing alongside superstars, having been teammates with both Malkin and Crosby. Whitney said Getzlaf is approaching their status and said this could be a defining series for him.

"He's won a Cup, so he's done that," Whitney said. "But at the same time, you're playing another top, tough center in the league who's a big guy. So I'm sure he wants to show that he's one of the best and he's got to drive to do that."

On the way to becoming a franchise player, Getzlaf has had the good fortune to learn from accomplished veterans such as Teemu Selanne, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger.

"Every since I came here, I've wanted to be an impact player and a player to be looked to down the road," he said. "I've had an opportunity to learn from some guys on how to do that stuff. I think that's all part of it."

Being one of the best playmaking centers in the League hasn't shielded Getzlaf from criticism.

Out of the NHL's top 50 scorers, only Getzlaf and first-line teammate Corey Perry racked up more than 100 penalty minutes. It's a reflection of the center's willingness to get physical -- and his penchant for taking a bad penalty or two.

"A lot of players will have opportunities like that but won't score in 10 shots on net. If you give Ryan Getzlaf 10 shots on net, he's going to score some goals. And that's the difference between those elite-level players and the players that wouldn't be described as gifted."
-- Randy Carlyle on Ryan Getzlaf

In other words, Getzlaf can't take himself off the ice and put his team a man down late in the third period with a one-goal lead in a playoff game -- as he did in Game 1
"He's not immune to criticism in those areas, believe me," Carlyle said. "He should be thanking Mike Brown and Todd Marchant, our goaltender and our defense for blocking the shots and paying the price for being one man down. And that's an understanding that he has to understand through the course of maturing."

The Ducks will live with that because there's few others that can come out of the penalty box, jump on a turnover at center ice and fire in a blur of a clean shot past an All-Star goalie.

"A lot of players will have opportunities like that but won't score in 10 shots on net," Carlyle said. "If you give Ryan Getzlaf 10 shots on net, he's going to score some goals. And that's the difference between those elite-level players and the players that wouldn't be described as gifted."

It's no wonder that the Ducks imagine what Getzlaf will be like when he reaches his peak.

"He's getting there," defenseman Chris Pronger said. "You look at the guys in the league that are looked at in that caliber. At times this year, he's taken his on his back and carried us through games. Scored big goals, set up big goals. He plays with an edge. He can play tough, he can play finesse. He's a jack-of-all-trades, so to speak, and can play in any situation and play any way you want that you want him to. That's the type of player you want to build around … that's going to be the heart and soul of your team.

"He's 23. It's his fourth year now. He's got a lot of growing and learning left to do. But he's starting at a much higher threshold than a lot of us are."

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