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NBA PLAYOFFS | THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT

In the End, There Can Be a Duck Beginning

May 09, 1997|HELENE ELLIOTT

The Mighty Ducks' season concluded Thursday with a 3-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings in two overtimes, sending them home for the summer and sending the Red Wings to the Western Conference finals.

However, the Ducks' four-game dismissal should not be regarded as a bad ending. If they are going to seriously contend for the Stanley Cup, they must look at it as a good beginning.

From now on, the Ducks have a choice. They can be complacent and rest on their laurels and their gate receipts, or they can realize that even though they gained so much ground and respect, they aren't yet halfway up the mountain.

They can decide it's enough to make the playoffs and make a pile of money, or they can decide they want to make a major impact on the NHL landscape.

From all indications, they intend to use what they have learned to become a smarter and better team. They may be a few years away from accumulating the talent and depth that gave the Red Wings an endless parade of fresh legs and scoring threats, but the Ducks now know what it takes to become a winner.

"Every playoff game you learn so much," center Mark Janssens said. "Guys in this room, especially the young guys, now realize how hard it is, how little time you have to make a play, how hard it is to get a shot off. Playoff hockey is so much more intense. Once you experience it, you know for next time."

And there will be a next time. If Paul Kariya doesn't win the NHL's most valuable player award this season, he almost certainly will claim it in a few years. Teemu Selanne has regained the superb form he showed before an Achilles tendon injury slowed him. Guy Hebert has carried a team and stolen games. Defensemen Dan Trebil and Darren Van Impe showed enormous promise.

"We're closing the gap every year. That's what I look at: how much closer we are," Coach Ron Wilson said. "We made some huge progress in closing the gap on the elite teams. We're not an elite team, but we're right under that and that's important.

"You learn there's a big difference from the regular season to the playoffs in terms of intensity and physical play, being persistent. Players learn that it's difficult enough winning one series, let alone two, three or four. . . .

"Even the Red Wings had to go through this three years ago when they lost to the Sharks [in a first-round upset]. They underestimated the Sharks. The next time they played the Sharks, they drilled them, 6-2, 7-2. That's what we're all learning. All the teams that have gone on to become not necessarily dynasties, but solid teams every year, you don't just come out cold and go into the finals."

Stanley Cup history is dotted with teams that became champions only after bitter defeats. The New York Islanders were favored to win the Cup in 1979 but fell in the semifinals to the rival New York Rangers; not until the next season did the Islanders begin their streak of four consecutive titles.

The Edmonton Oilers were also shaped--but not broken--by adversity before winning five Cups in seven years. They endured a four-game loss to the Islanders in the 1983 finals before avenging that in 1984.

"They had Gretzky and Messier and they didn't win the Cup right away," Duck defenseman Bobby Dollas pointed out. "You've got to learn how to lose before you learn how to win."

The Ducks learned enough about losing to know they don't want to keep doing it. To that end, there will be--there must be--changes this summer.

They must re-sign Kariya, a restricted free agent, and Wilson, whose contract expires July 1. They must find second- and third-line offensive help. They must find a physical defenseman who can add an element of menace they now lack; Luke Richardson of Edmonton, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, would fit that role nicely. In defensemen J.J. Daigneault--who will be an unrestricted free agent--and Dimitri Mironov, a restricted free agent, they have a duplication of elements; they may keep one but not both.

"Every team in this league, every time it doesn't win the Cup, there are changes," Dollas said. "Every year there's new faces, new thoughts on what direction the organization wants to go. The nucleus is probably 10 guys. We've got a good core of 10 guys and we can build around it. Right now this team is built around Paul and Teemu, and the best thing [management] could do is complement them."

The Colorado Avalanche, last year's Cup champions, didn't become winners overnight. Nor did the Red Wings, who will face the winner of the Colorado-Edmonton semifinal for the conference title.

"They're a playoff-hardened team. They lost last year and the year before to the team that won the Stanley Cup," Wilson said of the Red Wings. "I don't view them as failures. There are a lot of good teams out there.

"You want to plant the seed. We don't have any seeds in our garden yet, so nothing can grow."

Oh, but they did plant a seed this spring--a seed of hope. With proper care and feeding, it will bloom for years to come.

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