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Pronger glad he'll finish season as a Duck

by Eric Stephens
Nothing changed for Chris Pronger one day after all kinds of change took place around him.

Like any other day in the last two-plus years, Pronger suited up for another Anaheim Ducks practice and delightfully engaged in some verbal sparring with an assembled group of reporters afterward. Same as it's always been.

But when the Ducks went through with their plan to shake up their roster at the trade deadline, the one player that drew the most speculation as to who could be on the move didn't go anywhere -- at least not yet.

Anaheim will make its final push for a playoff spot with big No. 25 in his usual spot at the forefront.

"You don't want to go," said Pronger, acknowledging he was relieved to avoid being traded. "I like playing here. I still like the group that we have in here and I think we can win. It's up to us in here now to prove that."

Along with Florida's Jay Bouwmeester, Pronger was one of the biggest names that attracted interest and speculation from around the NHL because of the underachieving Ducks' tenuous spot in the postseason picture and their erratic play for much of the season.

The recent acquisition of talented defenseman Ryan Whitney, who is signed through the next four full seasons, only heightened the conjecture that Anaheim now didn't need Pronger and would shop the battle-tested veteran and head into rebuilding mode.

Bob Murray, who made four separate deals in his first whirlwind deadline day as general manager, made it clear that if some team, most likely a Stanley Cup contender, really wanted the former Hart and Norris Trophy winner, it would have to pay a heavy price to get him.

"I listened to stuff on him," said Murray, who took over for Brian Burke in November. "I listened to things on a whole bunch of players. Not only the unrestricted guys. I listen to lots of them. That's my job.

"He's a hell of a player and he's playing great right now. We've got a pretty good defense here right now and I like it."

Murray focused on beefing up the defense -- at least in the short term -- by acquiring James Wisniewski from Chicago on Wednesday and Whitney from an earlier deal. The one-time Blackhawks defenseman and GM plugged some holes in getting checking center Petteri Nokelainen from Boston and forward Erik Christensen from Atlanta while also looking toward the future in plucking highly rated prospect Nick Bonino from San Jose.

Naturally, those moves came at a cost. The vaunted checking line of Samuel Pahlsson, Travis Moen and Rob Niedermayer, which played a pivotal role in the Ducks' 2007 Stanley Cup championship, was broken up for good when Pahlsson was sent to Chicago for Wisniewski and Moen, along with defenseman Kent Huskins, was dealt to San Jose.

Due to injuries and ineffectiveness, the Pahlsson-Moen-Niedermayer trio hadn't played at the same high level.

"This year, that line, for whatever reason, didn't find its mark," Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said. "I can't explain why. We've tried different things. For whatever reason, we just didn't establish that strength in that checking line.

"And it so happened that Sami and Travis Moen wanted to test free agency. Like I said earlier, you can't expect an organization that has let players go and get nothing for them when you have the opportunity to receive something in return.

"It's unfortunate and they were a big part of the checking line with Rob Niedermayer. We just haven't been able to establish that strength in that group of three players all year."

Getting NHL-ready players in return and prospects for the future was what Murray focused on at the deadline. Because of salary-cap issues dogging the franchise since its Cup run, the Ducks often had to resort to waivers (Ilya Bryzgalov, Todd Bertuzzi) or largely cap-related moves (Andy McDonald, Mathieu Schneider, Sean O'Donnell) to create cap room while getting little, if anything, in return.

"We were chasing another [Cup]," Murray said. "And we let assets disappear on us. And it had to stop. We had to stop letting assets disappear. And we had to also get our money, our budget, our cap number in order.

"It's not totally done yet. But for the first time in two years, I can wake up this morning and not worry about our cap."

Carlyle is hoping that the changes invigorate a team that has been a disappointment for much of the season. Several teams are in a dogfight for the final two Western Conference playoff spots and the Ducks are one of them.

"It has done that in the past," Carlyle said. "Is it going to happen here? I don't know. We're talking the day after. I know that we want to play with more enthusiasm. We want to continue to push towards playing a higher level of hockey.

"We think that this group is capable of doing that. Now we've just got to go out and prove it."

Several pieces of the team that held up the Stanley Cup are gone from the dressing room, but Pronger isn't one of them. As much as his name was bandied about in NHL arenas, on television and in cyberspace before the deadline, the rough-and-tumble defenseman said he tuned out the speculation on his future.

"You have to," he said. "We're professionals. It's not like I'm the only guy that's ever played that there's trade rumors about him. It's part of the game.

"It's business. There's trade rumors all the time. There's people that have to deal with it."

Whitney, for one, is glad that Pronger is not in another locale.

"I'm pretty excited," said Whitney, who came to Anaheim in a deal with Pittsburgh for scoring winger Chris Kunitz. "I asked him after the Chicago game [on March 3] what he thought before the deadline and he told me he'd still be here. That's kind of what I was hoping.

"To get to play with him is pretty awesome. I'm pretty confident I'll get to play alongside him for the rest of the year."

How long Pronger remains in Anaheim is another issue?

Pronger has one more year left on his contract but Whitney is in the fold and the common thought is, if captain Scott Niedermayer returns for a 17th NHL season, the Ducks won't be able to afford all of them and Pronger would be the coveted bargaining chip that would help Anaheim reload instead of rebuild. They still must decide on re-signing defenseman Francois Beauchemin, another potential unrestricted free agent who has missed the last four months with a torn ACL in his left knee.

Niedermayer, whose contract is also up July 1, has not indicated whether he'll play next season. If he retires, the Ducks could conceivably hold on to Pronger for another year.

"We'll see what happens in the spring and summer," Murray said. 'We've got a lot of hockey left to play."

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