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Ducks Out of Water

Thomas and Oates are unemployed after helping Anaheim reach new heights

September 23, 2003|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

These may have to be the lasting memories. The still-frames seem to have more movement than their subjects for the moment.

Snap. Steve Thomas, arms raised, bracing for the crush of teammates seconds after scoring in overtime to give the Mighty Ducks a 1-0 victory over New Jersey in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals.

Thomas, 40, was a key late-season addition to the Ducks, scoring 10 goals in 12 regular-season games. He now sits at home, enjoying time with his family while longing for one more season.

"I don't understand it, either," Thomas said. "You can be scoring the overtime winner in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals and then be unemployed in September."

Click. Adam Oates, "the Other One" next to "the Great One" when talking about passing the puck, scored two goals to rally the Ducks to a 2-1 victory over Minnesota that completed a sweep in the Western Conference finals.

Oates, 41, was more than a free-agent signing by the Ducks last season, he was the example of how things were going to be different in Anaheim. Now he wanders golf courses, mulling a retirement that seems to have been forced upon him.

These heroes of spring for the Ducks are wondering this fall how they ended up out to pasture.

The Ducks say they would have liked to have one, maybe both, back.

They twice offered Oates contracts, the last for one year at $2.2 million. He turned it down.

Thomas indicated he wanted to play near Toronto, where he and his family live.

So both were allowed to become free agents and were unsigned when training camps opened.

"I thought I had a pretty good playoff and was pretty marketable after that," Thomas said. "Nothing really has happened.

Thomas and Oates are not alone. Other veterans, all one-time marquee players, are waiting in the NHL unemployment line -- Adam Graves, Cliff Ronning, Phil Housley, Ulf Dahlen and Ken Klee to name a few.

With training camps already in full swing, those players may have to wait until the season gets closer, or even begins, to get contracts. Teams will give younger players a chance to prove themselves, then, if needed, will bolster their rosters.

"Everyone has spent their money right now, whatever their budget was. It's a difficult time," said one NHL agent. "There are hardly any injuries, and no one has lost a game yet. At this point, everyone presumes they are a good team."

The Ducks certainly think they have that good-team shine.

General Manager Bryan Murray ran the team's Stanley Cup finals appearance into a summer of solutions. After Paul Kariya left as a free agent, he signed top-flight center Sergei Fedorov and talented Vaclav Prospal, a significant upgrade.

Yet, the uncertainty surrounding left wing Mike Leclerc, who is expected to be out at least until mid-December while recovering from knee surgery, might have Murray eventually shopping for another experienced body up front. For now, he wants to see what young players, like 2002 first-round pick Joffrey Lupul, can do.

Meanwhile, Thomas has spent time puttering around the house, while Oates has been putting on the green.

"I don't expect anything, but I had hoped to be in a camp from Day 1," Thomas said. "I have been through 19 camps and, as much as you hate them, you like to be there to get started on the team chemistry, get to know the younger players."

This is virgin ground for Thomas, who has always been able to supply a demand for goal scoring. He has scored 411 goals over a 19-year career. Any thoughts that his skills were slipping vanished when the Ducks acquired him at the trade deadline.

He scored 10 goals in the last 12 regular-season games and had four more in the playoffs, including two game winners. Thomas' presence in the dressing room was a benefit, as was his mentoring of rookie winger Stanislav Chistov.

Yet, he finds himself jobless.

"I have no idea why that is," Thomas said. "I wish I did. Maybe it has to do with the uncertainty of next season. Maybe it has to do with my age. I don't know. I just know I didn't expect to be unemployed right now."

Thomas says he has talked with "a few teams," one of which was Buffalo. The Ducks, though, were out of the picture early as Thomas wished to remain close to his son, Christian, 11, and his daughter, Lauren, 9.

Oates, on the other hand, was offered contracts by the Ducks, Murray declining to exercise the team's $3.5-million option. Oates was a cornerstone in the Ducks' redevelopment project. He was the name free agent Murray signed last season and, despite sitting out a month because of a broken hand, finished with nine goals and 45 points. He had eight goals and 39 points in the last 41 games, during which the Ducks had a 25-11-2-3 record that secured a playoff spot.

Oates' play in the playoffs produced game-winning moments. He scored the Ducks' first goal against Detroit in Game 1, which the Ducks won, 2-1, in the third overtime. He created scoring opportunities in the second round against Dallas, with assists on overtime goals by Petr Sykora and Leclerc in the first two games.

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