For a while there, it appeared the Anaheim Ducks
’ road to a repeat was going be much longer than the route they took in 2007.
No more Scott Niedermayer. No more Teemu Selanne. Both players decided after climbing to the top of the hockey mountain last June that enough was enough.
“The first thing that happened is two Hall of Famers retired on us,” Ducks General Manager Brian Burke said, “and no one has ever had that happen.”
So Burke built the 2007-08 Ducks with the mindset that Niedermayer and Selanne had indeed played their last games. He quickly signed defenseman Mathieu Schneider as a free agent to ease the pain of losing Niedermayer before signing power forward Todd Bertuzzi a day later.
“If both players came back, we’d have to look at what we could do,” Burke said of Niedermayer and Selanne after the signings of Schneider and Bertuzzi. “You don’t have to be an MIT grad to do the math here. You’d have to be pretty creative. That’s Plan C and I’m only on Plan B. If they’d want to come back, we’d love to have them. That hasn’t changed.”
Anaheim’s roster did suffer a major change just three weeks later, when promising young forward Dustin Penner – who was coming off a 29-goal season – was signed to an offer sheet by the Edmonton Oilers. On Aug. 2, 2007 the Ducks announced that the price of five years and $21.25 million was simply too high. Penner was headed North.
“We signed Schneids and Bert, and then we lose Pens and had to deal with all the things that go on with that,” defenseman Chris Pronger said. “You’re excited about what happened before, but all anyone wants to talk about is how are you going to be able to handle it without these guys back. We were constantly answering questions.”
The new-look Ducks began their championship defense far away from Orange County. Heck, they didn’t even start the campaign in North America.
With the NHL reaching out to new audiences worldwide, the Ducks found themselves facing the Los Angeles Kings at the 02 Arena in London at the end of September. The teams split the first two games of the season, playing meaningful games again just over three months after raising Lord Stanley.
“You want to tell yourself it’s no big deal and it’s all mental, but that London trip was a tough thing to do,” defenseman Sean O’Donnell said.
Less than three months later, Burke made another big change to his club. Feeling he needed a veteran center who could create more offensive chances for Bertuzzi, the Ducks acquired Doug Weight from the St. Louis Blues in a deal that sent Andy McDonald to the Midwest.
“McDonald and Todd Bertuzzi were not successful in developing any chemistry together,” Burke said after pulling the trigger. “We’re hoping that Bertuzzi can find a little bit more chemistry with Doug Weight, so we’re very pleased to have him. We think this might be a better fit.”
Twenty-four hours after the deal was announced, Niedermayer’s retirement was officially over. He was placed on Anaheim’s active roster on Dec. 15 and played the following night. The Ducks were 15-15-4.
“I think the big thing was just realizing that I felt I still wanted to get out there and compete and help my teammates, support my teammates and be part of a team,” Niedermayer said. “That’s something that is pretty special about team sports. Whether it’s 10- or 12-year-olds or professionals, there’s a special bond7 that you have in the room.”
The room received another shot in the arm when Selanne realized retirement wasn’t for him, either. The fantastic Finn skated with the team for the first time on Jan. 28 and returned to the lineup on Feb. 5. The Ducks earned a 3-0 victory that night at Nassau Coliseum.
“That night on Long Island was our turning point, a stepping stone,” Ducks forward Corey Perry said. “Everybody got focused and knew this is our team and this is who we have to run with.”
Since then, the Ducks have been one of the hottest teams in the League. They’ve been nearly unbeatable on home ice, losing only three times at the Honda Center since the calendar turned to 2008.
When it’s all said and done, Anaheim might be better off in the long run after all the adversity is has faced over the past 10 months.
“We haven’t used anything for a crutch,” Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. “We’ve faced all the adversity that we’ve been dealt. All of the challenges, we felt we’d meet them head on. We’ve met them head on, but have we been as good or consistent as we’d like to be? No, we haven’t, but we’ve shown flashes and we think we have the ability with this group to elevate our execution level.
“These things are all an attack on the mental preparation that you have to go through to have success.”