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More Mighty Promises

Analysis: Ducks' wait-till-next-year talk will come true only if scoring and power play are improved in off-season.

April 16, 2002|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Mighty Ducks are "close" to a Stanley Cup playoff team, as their management has suggested this season. Their home ice is about 30 miles from Staples Center, where the Kings play.

But as for the Ducks' own postseason hopes, another off-season has come and the words from past off-seasons still hang in the air.

"I think we're getting there and once we get there, we're going to be there for a while. I think you'll see next season that we'll be back, the fans will be back and the team will be strong."

That's what Disney CEO Michael Eisner said two seasons ago in his last public comment about the team he created.

The fans aren't back. Tickets sold for Duck games dropped for the fifth consecutive season to a franchise-low 492,088, lowest in the NHL.

The team is not strong. The Ducks finished 13th in the Western Conference, 25 points out of a playoff spot.

And Eisner has refused all interview requests about a franchise that has missed the playoffs seven of its nine seasons.

Duck management, though, is already in wait-till-next-season form. As in Oz, please ignore the 13th-place finish behind the curtain, and merely listen to the Wizard.

"It never happens this way, but if no team makes any changes [during the off-season], if there was a rule that no one could make changes, then I would say, 'Terrific,' because we'd make the playoffs with this team," General Manager Pierre Gauthier said.

He's right, of course. It never does happen that way, and there is no such rule.

The reality is that the Ducks were a respectable 15-13-2 in their last 30 games. But playoff berths are earned over 82 games.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere emerged as a talented young NHL goalie. And the Ducks still finished 13th.

The Ducks allowed a franchise-low 198 goals. And they finished 13th.

Center Matt Cullen and right wing Mike Leclerc made significant strides. And the Ducks finished 13th.

The penalty-killing unit finished seventh in the NHL. And the Ducks finished 13th.

Keith Carney gave backbone to a defense that gave up the eighth-fewest goals in the NHL. German Titov played some quality hockey. Andy McDonald developed into a legitimate NHL center.

And the Ducks finished 13th.

"We're basically a .500 club the last stretch, the last 30 games, of the season," Gauthier said. "The team progressed."

Yes, it did. The Ducks didn't finish at the bottom of the conference, as they did last season. But neither did they finish ahead of Minnesota, a second-year expansion team, for the second consecutive season.

"In this conference, you had to be 10 games over .500 to make the playoffs," team captain Paul Kariya said.

To close that gap is simple, and it's not: More goals.

Only last-place Columbus scored fewer goals than the Ducks, who scored two or fewer goals in 58 games.

The Duck power play ranked last in the NHL. They lost 16 one-goal games when they failed to score on the power play. They had five tie games in which they didn't score on the power play.

"That doesn't include two-goal games where, depending how the game went, if you get a power-play goal it could swing the game around," Kariya said. "If you give us even an average power play, then we are in the playoffs. That is what we have to address in the off-season."

Easier said than done.

Quality goal scorers are not exactly lying around waiting to be picked up.

The Ducks are pinning some hopes on further development of Leclerc and Cullen, each of whom had his career high in goals, as well as Jeff Friesen and Steve Rucchin, who had another injury-marred season and will undergo surgery this week to have pins removed from his left ankle.

But there seems to be a need for outside help.

"I can't say anything about the personnel, what we need and what we don't need," Coach Bryan Murray said. "I know that if we're going to make up 25 points [in the standings], we need to score more."

There are potential unrestricted free agents. Among them are Chicago's Tony Amonte, Boston's Bill Guerin and San Jose's Teemu Selanne--can you imagine Selanne and Kariya on a line together?

A trade is an option. But any deal could open a larger hole elsewhere with the depth-challenged Ducks.

"It doesn't have to be one player, it could be more than one addition," Gauthier said. "We'll look at all areas of player procurement. When you talk free agency, that's a very risky, very costly situation. Every year, around the league, it's a box of surprises.

"You have 30 teams trying to find scoring. We could draft players who could help immediately. Or it may be some of our European players."

The Ducks' best European player is at least two years off. Russian forward Stanislav Christov must complete another year of military service--barring some financial arrangement.

This year's draft, Gauthier said, is not very deep. Nor do the Ducks have a good history of picking players who can help immediately.

Still, nothing seems so optimistic as a Duck off-season.

"You have 30 teams that want to make the playoffs," Gauthier said. "That's quite a challenge in our own division. But we feel better now about our chances than we did the last couple years."

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