WASHINGTON — As ever, the opening of a season produces more questions than answers. The most important question facing the Mighty Ducks on the eve of their sixth season concerns captain Paul Kariya.
Is Kariya truly recovered from the post-concussion syndrome that sidelined him for last season's final 28 games? Can he avoid future head injuries? Will he change his game to avoid contact?
Kariya answers by saying he feels great, hopes a new helmet with 25% more padding will protect him better than his old one and that he would quit if he had to alter his style of play.
Right wing Teemu Selanne has another answer. Or to be more precise, a prediction, a statement of his faith in Kariya's ability to rebound.
"I think Paul can score 60 goals this season," Selanne said before the Ducks' opener against the Washington Capitals tonight at the MCI Center.
In an era of declining scoring, that's a doozy of a prediction.
After all, goals fell from 5.8 a game in 1996-97 to 5.28 last season. Selanne and Washington's Peter Bondra led the league with 52 each last season. And only the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jaromir Jagr topped 100 points.
"I think there's some players who can score 60 goals," said Selanne, who might as well include himself on a list with Kariya and others such as Bondra. "[But] if you score 60 goals, you've got to play with some great players. It would be nice to push a button and go back to 1982. Now, it's so much harder to get points."
Selanne believes the cross-check that then-Chicago Blackhawk defenseman Gary Suter delivered to Kariya's jaw Feb. 1 is one reason goal-scoring is down in the NHL, albeit an extreme one. Selanne says the hooking, holding and other thuggery practiced by defense-oriented teams make it more difficult to score.
Wayne Gretzky's single-season records of 92 goals and 212 points, set in 1981-82, seem unbreakable. Kariya's bests are 50 goals and 108 points, in 1995-96.
"Nobody's going to get 92 goals with the rules the way they are," said Selanne, who set the NHL rookie record with 76 goals in 1992-93. "Hockey used to be so much more open. It's the hockey I like to play so much."
It's the hockey Selanne and Kariya hope to play together this season.
Kariya, clear since May of headaches, dizziness and memory loss stemming from his concussion--it was his fourth--participated in training camp for the first time in three seasons. He sat out the 1996 camp because of a lower abdominal injury and was absent last year because of a contract dispute.
This was the first time Selanne and Kariya attended camp together, since Selanne was acquired from the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 7, 1996.
What might also help Kariya this season is the presence of tough guys Stu Grimson and Jim McKenzie, acquired in separate off-season trades. They will act as policemen for Kariya, Selanne and the Ducks' other skill players.
Craig Hartsburg, who makes his Duck coaching debut tonight, also has an answer to the questions about Kariya.
"I think the less we talk about it and worry about it, the better it will be for him," said Hartsburg, who will need Kariya if he hopes to improve on the Ducks' 26-43-13 record of last season.