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Revamped Ducks look for return to playoffs

by Phil Coffey
You look at the names on the roster and wonder how in the heck the Anaheim Ducks didn't make the playoffs in 2009-10. And you're not alone. What killed the Ducks was a two-month stretch from mid-October to mid-December in which they went a middling 10-12-6 and dug themselves a very deep hole in the Western Conference. Anaheim finished strong, at 9-3-3, but it was too late to matter.

So, now what?

General Manager Bob Murray and coach Randy Carlyle have asked the same questions and hope that a revamped defense corps -- an absolute necessity in the wake of Scott Niedermayer's retirement -- coupled with a strong core of forwards will turn the disappointment of last season into the promise of better things in 2010-11.

Let's start off with the retirement of Niedermayer, one of the great players and winners of his generation. His decision to retire this summer wasn't wholly unexpected, and as developments showed, Murray was ready to make changes to a unit that had been led by the multiple Stanley Cup winner.

The Ducks signed veterans Toni Lydman, late of the Buffalo Sabres and Andy Sutton, who finished last season in Ottawa, and their veteran presence should help ease the transition into life without Niedermayer, a sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Famer. But make no mistake about it, Niedermayer will be missed.

"A guy like Scott Niedermayer, it's not so much what Scotty said in the locker room," center Todd Marchant told the team's Website this summer. "When he did speak, obviously people listened. It was more the way that he carried himself. Now, with Scotty retiring, it's an opportunity for other players to step forward and take more of a leadership role. It's their chance to take that next step in the evolution of their careers. If you don't, you'll just stay along in the same path and you'll never reach your full potential. We have several players who can definitely benefit almost from Scotty not being here. They can take their mental part of the game to the next level."

Up front, Teemu Selanne resisted retirement's siren song and is back to make another run for the Stanley Cup. That's an important clue to the Ducks' mindset this season. It's unlikely the 40-year-old Selanne would have hung around for a rebuilding program, so the aim in Anaheim is to go for it in 2010-11.

"Every year I think it might be my last year," Selanne said upon signing on for one more season. "That's how I really get motivated to get better and better. It helps me to have the attitude of, 'This is it, and I'm going to leave everything there.' It's worked pretty well for me, so I think I'll be the same way this coming year. I think it's a good sign when you still enjoy the game and you can compete with the young guys. It's hard to retire, especially when you still enjoy it. It would be easier to do it if you think you can't play at the same level and you don't enjoy it as much. But if you do both, that's the reason I'm still playing."

"Teemu and I talked a fair amount after last season," Murray said. "We kept in touch over the playoffs and into the summer. We talked about things and as time went on, I kind of felt he really wanted to play again. I think he had such a good experience at the end of the year and his line played well. He had fun. I think he liked how he felt about himself at the end of the year. He still can fly. He's still got it. He still has the passion to play the game and he loves to score goals."

Staying with Selanne for the moment, he was limited to 54 games last season -- but he made them productive games, scoring 27 goals and 21 assists. However, the bulk of the minutes this season will go to the Ducks' top trio of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan, three of the most exciting young players in the League.

Perry, 25, topped the Ducks in scoring last season with 27 goals and 49 assists and was his usual combative self with 111 penalty minutes. Canadian Olympian Getzlaf, also 25, scored 19 goals and 50 assists in 66 games -- he missed much of the last month with an ankle injury.

Playing a full schedule this season could see Getzlaf close in on the 100-point mark. He has been close before, finishing 2008-09 with 91 points in 81 games. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Getzlaf is a horse who can dominate in the offensive zone and who has the desire to play in the big games. Last season, he fought off a sprained ankle to skate for Team Canada at the Olympics and the Canadian benefitted in a big way because of his bruising play.

Ryan, 23,  continued his ascent into the ranks of up-and-comers last season, netting 35 goals and 29 assists in 81 games, improving on a 2008-09 season that saw him score 31 times and assist on 26 goals.

With those three young bulls a formidable top line, Selanne and veteran center Saku Koivu form a second line brimming with an off-the-charts hockey IQ. Koivu, 35, has more than 850 games to his credit and scored 19 goals and 33 assists last season, his first in Anaheim after a distinguished career with the Montreal Canadiens. A possible left winger with the two veteran Finns would be another graybeard in Jason Blake, who scored 6 goals and 9 assists in 26 games with Anaheim after coming over in a deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Joffrey Lupul, 26, is a question mark to start the season after having suffered a recurrence of a blood infection that scuttled much of his 2009-10 season. That's a blow for Anaheim as Lupul, originally drafted seventh by Anaheim in 2002, was coming off a 25-goal, 25-assist season with the Flyers in 2008-09. He had been dealt back to Anaheim in the Chris Pronger trade.

Veteran Todd Marchant figures to center the third line with Kyle Chipchura and Ryan Carter battling for the fourth-line center spot. Aaron Voros came over from the New York Rangers during the summer and joins the likes of George Parros, Matt Beleskey, Troy Bodie, Dan  Sexton and Josh Green in the battles to man the third and fourth lines.

The Ducks acquired 34-year-old veteran Lubomir Visnovsky from the Edmonton Oilers for Ryan Whitney late last season. He went on to scored 5 goals and 8 assists in 16 games, so figure on Visnovsky being Carlyle's power-play quarterback in place of Niedermayer, who contributed 10 goals and 38 assists in his final season.

In addition to Niedermayer's retirement, the Ducks also traded away James Wisniewski and Steve Eminger over the summer after dealing Whitney and Nick Boynton during the season --  leaving Sheldon Brookbank as one of the last defenders standing. Brookbank, 29, adds a physical presence, picking up 114 penalty minutes and 9 assists in 66 games last season.

Andy Sutton is a big addition in both the literal and figurative sense. He is 6-foot-6, 245 pounds and unafraid to use that bulk to his advantage. Sutton, 35, spent split last season between the Islanders and Senators, finishing with 5 goals and 8 assists in 72 games, along with 107 penalty minutes. The other new addition, Toni Lydman, 32, scored 4 goals and 16 assists and was a plus-10 in 67 games with the Buffalo Sabres. Also, Danny Syvret, 25, came over from Philadelphia, where he had 2 goals and 2 assists in 21 games.

Two kids also figure to make some noise on the backline this season. Cam Fowler was the 12th pick in the 2010 Entry Draft, and the Ducks hope he makes an immediate impact. A strong skater, Fowler could well start the season in Anaheim after a distinguished junior career. Last season with the Windsor Spitfires, Fowler scored 8 goals and 47 assists and was a plus-38. In postseason play, Fowler scored 3 goals and 11 assists as Windsor won both consecutive Ontario Hockey League and Memorial Cup titles.

The other youngster to watch is Luca Sbisa, 20, who came over from the Flyers in the Chris Pronger deal last year. He appeared in eight games for the Ducks last season before returning to finish out his junior season. With Lethbridge and Portland of the WHL, Sbisa had 18 points and he also competed for Switzerland in the Olympics and World Junior Championships.

Plenty of change occurred in net for the Ducks last season, as Jonas Hiller grabbed the No. 1 job from veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who was traded to the Maple Leafs.

Hiller is the man for the foreseeable future for the Ducks. He posted a 30-23-4 mark last season with a 2.73 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and a couple of shutouts. Hiller, 28, was 23-15-1 in 2008-09 with a strong 2.39 GAA and .919 save percentage that opened the door for him to grab the top job.

Curtis McElhinney will be Hiller's backup. He came over from the Calgary Flames last season after posting a 3-4-0 mark as Miikka Kiprusoff's backup. In Anaheim, McElhinney was 5-1-2 in 10 appearances with a 2.76 GAA and .917 save percentage.

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