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Ducks try to bounce back from disappointing season

by Brian Hunter
While the Pacific Division was full of success stories last season, the Anaheim Ducks were unable to add to their recent run of good fortune.

A franchise that went to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2003, won its first championship four years later and was just a season removed from a monumental first-round playoff upset of San Jose came crashing back to earth in 2009-10.

As fans around the NHL were marveling at the resurgences in Los Angeles and Phoenix, and while San Jose was carving yet another division title into its legacy, Anaheim was finishing with a meager 89 points, its fewest since the 2003-04 season -- back when the team was known as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and not so coincidentally, the previous time it failed to make the postseason.

In the wake of their 11th-place finish in the Western Conference, the Ducks also took a hit with the retirement of future Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Niedermayer, the captain of their Cup-winning squad. Another legend of the game, Teemu Selanne, is weighing his options as far as playing another season or joining Niedermayer on the golf course.

There's still a lot to like about Anaheim, however. Start with a top line that's as potent as any in hockey, with Ryan Getzlaf centering Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. Injuries cost Getzlaf 16 games last season, but he averaged better than a point per game (19-50-69) in the 66 he played. Perry led the team in points with 76 and Ryan in goals with 35.

Goaltender Jonas Hiller wrested the No. 1 job away from former Conn Smythe winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who wound up being traded to Toronto, and put up solid numbers: a 30-23-4 record, 2.73 goals-against average, .918 save percentage. Hiller could use more help, though, from a defense corps that now has lost Chris Pronger and Niedermayer in the past two offseasons. Only the Florida Panthers allowed more shots per game last season than the 33.4 the Ducks surrendered.

Niedermayer contemplated retirement after winning his fourth Cup in 2007, but returned midway through the following season and played 162 of a possible 164 regular-season games over his final two seasons in the League. He recorded 24 goals and 107 points over that span, a clear indication he still was among the elite at his position, but now he appears to have hung up the skates for good. His absence figures to be felt particularly on the power play, where the Ducks were fifth in the League last season at 21.0 percent.

If Selanne follows suit, Anaheim would lose another lethal weapon from its man-advantage unit, where the Finnish Flash scored 14 of his 27 goals last season. Selanne battled injuries and turned 40 in July, but he remains a top-flight player who boasts career totals of 606 goals and 1,260 points.

In separate trades, the Ducks also said goodbye to checking forward Mike Brown and defensemen Steve Eminger and James Wisniewski. Brown, who notched a career-high 6 goals last season to go with 106 penalty minutes, was dealt to Toronto. Eminger was sent to the Rangers, who will be his sixth NHL team in the past four seasons. Wisniewski went to the Islanders.

On the opening day of free agency, Anaheim added an important piece to its blue line with the signing of former Buffalo defenseman Toni Lydman to a three-year contract. While not the offensive force Niedermayer was -- Lydman never has scored more than 28 points in a season -- he's reliable in his own end, as the plus-36 he has amassed dating back to 2003-04 attests.

Andy Sutton, a veteran defenseman who split last season between the Islanders and Senators, signed a two-year contract on Monday. Sutton adds some goal-scoring ability -- having tallied as many as 8 goals in a season -- as well as snarl, with 1,018 career penalty minutes.

Aaron Voros, who came over along with minor-leaguer Ryan Hillier in the Eminger trade, adds grit up front. He's piled up 352 penalty minutes in 150 games for New York and Minnesota while also displaying occasional scoring ability, with 18 goals and 37 points.

Others who could figure into the mix include: free-agent forward Trevor Smith, who scored a goal in seven games for the Islanders two seasons ago; free-agent defenseman Danny Syvret, who has 2 goals and 5 points in 49 NHL games for the Flyers and Oilers; and Jason Jaffray, who has played 36 NHL games during cups of coffee with the Flames and Canucks.

Where the Ducks seemingly made their biggest splash was at the 2010 Entry Draft in Los Angeles. They never expected Windsor Spitfires defenseman Cam Fowler to be available at No. 12, but his drop in the first round turned out to be Anaheim's gain. Fowler's aim is to make the opening-night roster, but regardless of whether he achieves that goal, the team hopes he will develop into an elite blueliner in the mold of Niedermayer.

At No. 29, the Ducks took Medicine Hat Tigers forward (and Southern California native) Emerson Etem, then added more size up front in the second round with Mississauga St. Michael's Majors forward Devante Smith-Pelly.

Even with the absence of Niedermayer and the potential loss of Selanne, expect Anaheim to score its share of goals. The Ducks averaged 2.84 goals per game last season, seventh in the League, and a number of offensive options remain beyond the Getzlaf-Perry-Ryan trio.

Veteran center Saku Koivu, whose 52 points were tops on the team following the Big Three, was re-signed. Koivu also brings tremendous faceoff ability to the table. Jason Blake (16-25-41) adds scoring savvy, while a full season from Joffrey Lupul (10-4-14), limited to 23 games last season due to back surgery, would be helpful. Rookie Dan Sexton put up 9 goals and 19 points in half a season, and another youngster, Matt Beleskey, compiled 11 goals and 18 points in 60 games.

Lubomir Visnovsky was impressive after coming over from the Oilers, registering 5 goals and 13 points in 16 games with the Ducks. He's the big threat now from the point.

Firmly entrenched as the starter, Hiller will look to raise his game to another level this season. With Curtis McElhinney now his backup, there's no need for Hiller to look over his shoulder or worry about a No. 1/1A tandem like when Giguere was around.

Other teams in the division and conference have made up ground on Anaheim, which now must take a step toward reclaiming some of its past glory.

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