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Ducks Look for Positives After Strong Off-Season

Gauthier, Hartsburg look for progress from bigger, more versatile team despite its continuing shift to youth.


It cannot accurately be reported that the Ducks simply threw their hands in disgust after stinking up the Arrowhead Pond last season. They did not flee to the nearest golf course or fishing hole to curse their fate while working on nothing more significant than an off-season tan.

The Ducks got mad and then tried to do something about their ninth-place finish in the NHL's Western Conference. Pierre Gauthier vowed to make sweeping changes to the roster and did so--believed to be the first time a Duck general manager kept his postseason promise to upgrade the club.

Did the Ducks load up on all-stars and recognizable names and faces? No.

Unlike the NBA, NFL and major league baseball, it's almost impossible to revamp a hockey team strictly through free agency. For one thing, NHL players don't become unrestricted free agents until they're 31. In many cases, that means they're well past their prime and not worth the big bucks they command.

Gauthier did sign one significant free agent, veteran center German Titov, 34, who last season played with Jaromir Jagr in Pittsburgh. Titov, who signed a three-season deal worth $4.5 million, is expected to bolster the second line and give the Ducks more scoring beyond their standout top line of Paul Kariya, Steve Rucchin and Teemu Selanne.

There are more new faces. Gauthier acquired a new backup goalie (Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who will start the season in the minors), a new defenseman (Patrick Traverse) and new hard-nosed forwards to cause opponents trouble around the net (Dan Bylsma, Jim Cummins and Andrei Nazarov). He also drafted a 27-year-old Swede (Jonas Ronnqvist) capable of playing on the third line.

"We have so many more options we can try this year," said Coach Craig Hartsburg, who signed a two-season contract extension during the off-season. "We've got guys we can keep moving around. We'd like to stay with set lines, but now we have options. We have more depth.

"Any time you stay the same in this league it usually means you're getting worse."

Gauthier knew Hartsburg couldn't put an effective team on the ice if forced to depend on a "Smurf" line of Matt Cullen (6 feet 1, 198 pounds) or Marty McInnis (5-11, 190) with Ted Donato (5-10, 181) and Kip Miller (5-10, 190). So, Gauthier jettisoned Donato and Miller and went looking for bigger players.

Now, the second line is comprised of McInnis, Titov (6-1, 201) and improving winger Mike Leclerc (6-1, 211). The third line of Nazarov (6-5, 234), Cullen and Ronnqvist (6-1, 200) also casts long shadows.

Gauthier's revamping of the forward lines comes on the heels of upgrades on defense. In Traverse, Niclas Havelid, Oleg Tverdovsky and Vitaly Vishnevski, the Ducks have four strong-skating defensemen capable of moving the puck out of trouble and into scoring range. In Vishnevski, Jason Marshall, Ruslan Salei and Pavel Trnka, the Ducks also have four defensemen capable of molar-rattling checks.

"Oleg is an impact player," Hartsburg said of Tverdovsky, ninth last season among NHL defensemen with 51 points, including a career-best 15 goals. "Vishnevski is going to be an impact player. As a group, there are a lot of good pieces."

Hartsburg, so often dour in his dealings with reporters in his first two seasons in Anaheim, was actually seen smiling at times during training camp.

"It's not only the coaching staff, but the players also sense there's a lot of excitement," Hartsburg said. "We've got more good players. Everybody is excited about the direction we're going. We've got to keep building. We have good players, but there's a whole other level we can reach.

"I think the changes we've made will help us be a better team. We're still young and there are going to be some ups and downs. But we're moving ahead. We're trying to build so we have a team that's consistent and plays to a high level every night."

It's the only way the Ducks will shoulder their way among the NHL's elite, something the organization has been hoping would happen ever since an unexpected run to the second round of the 1997 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Like last season, the top of the Western Conference seems almost impenetrable, what with Dallas, Colorado, St. Louis and Detroit considered mortal locks to take the four top spots and leaving teams such as the Ducks to fight for the next four playoff spots.

Making the top eight will probably require an almost flawless performance by the Ducks. Goalie Guy Hebert must rebound from a subpar 1999-2000 in which he was 28-31-9 with a 2.51 goals-against average. The power play must improve on last season's 16.6% success rate. The penalty kill has to be better than last season's last-place finish at a meager 79.1% success rate.

"We've got to improve our power play," said Tverdovsky, who signed a three-season, $9.15-million contract during training camp. "It was one of the reasons we didn't make the playoffs last year. Our power play was No. 1 the year before and we want to get back to that. Right now, it's where you score the majority of your goals."

At least to start the season, Tverdovsky will quarterback the power play. McInnis will move to the point spot vacated by Fredrik Olausson, who retired to play in Switzerland. Kariya, Selanne and Rucchin will play the forward positions. It's essentially the same group that led the NHL with a 22% success rate in 1998-99.

"We've got some work to do," Tverdovsky said. "I'm sure everybody knows what to do. It's a matter of doing it. We have a good group here. We have a lot of speed. We have some guys who want to prove themselves and some veterans who are not satisfied with last season."

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