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Ducks Hope to Change History

With a new managerial staff and an influx of new talent, Anaheim is hoping to leave its struggles in the past.

October 04, 2005|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Now that was an extreme makeover.

The NHL decided to reinvent itself in the wake of its debilitating 310-day lockout with the hope that it comes back better, if not stronger. The Mighty Ducks followed the league's lead in making their own dramatic transformation, the same goals in mind.

Before they put the sign back in the window to open for business, the Ducks underwent a laundry list of changes.

New owners. Check.

New general manager. Check.

New coach. Check.

New nickname. Well, the last reminder of the Disney reign isn't a hit with the new bosses but it remains. For now, at least.

The changes have also filtered into the locker room. With the arrival of the game's best defenseman, the return of a beloved star and a core of talented youngsters about to make an impact, there is an air of optimism surrounding the Ducks.

It is also October. Their history has often shown that change doesn't always prove beneficial by April. But after nearly 1 1/2 years with an empty hockey rink, the dramatic moves are being welcomed with open arms. The anticipation of a season that begins Wednesday night in Chicago has 35-year-old Sergei Fedorov feeling pretty spry these days.

"I feel like I'm 21 again," the center said.

The Ducks could use a renewal of sorts because the last product they put on the ice is not fondly remembered. The plan to join the league's elite after a stirring Stanley Cup run fizzled into a 29-35-10-8 season.

Fedorov, signed to a lucrative five-year contract in July 2003, led the team in scoring with 65 points but struggled with consistency. Another free-agent signing, forward Vaclav Prospal, also failed to energize the offense.

New owners Henry and Susan Samueli, who purchased the team from Disney for $75 million, turned to an experienced NHL hand in Brian Burke to run the team after he was let go by the Vancouver Canucks following a largely successful six-year run as general manager.

Burke quickly established a new order by letting Mike Babcock take a better offer to coach the Detroit Red Wings and hiring former longtime defenseman Randy Carlyle to instill an attacking, puck-moving system, a sharp departure from defense-oriented Babcock.

It is Carlyle's first NHL head coaching job, but the former Norris Trophy winner has quickly established his direct style. Many players are taking a wait-and-see approach.

The one move that may change their fortunes is Burke's ambitious and successful courtship of Scott Niedermayer, luring the All-Star defenseman and reigning Norris winner away from New Jersey.

The goal, Burke said, is to return to the playoffs and getting Niedermayer was critical to building a skilled, up-tempo team. To maintain continuity and attract the star blue-line player, he negotiated multiyear deals with center Rob Niedermayer, Scott's brother, and defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh.

"You can't win in this league without a stud on defense," Burke said. "They have to respect him every time he's on the ice. They have to worry playing against him. They have to worry where people are. It forces teams to treat yours with a much higher respect level."

Defenseman Ruslan Salei said the pursuit of Niedermayer confirmed Burke's commitment to improve the team.

"I think it says to me and everybody else that he wants to win with this team," Salei said.

Burke followed up by bringing back Teemu Selanne, hoping the 35-year-old Finnish star will return to the level of his previous stop in Anaheim, where he had 225 goals over six seasons.

Signed to a one-year, $1-million contract, Selanne had surgery on his right knee during the lockout and is skating better than he has in recent years.

The bold moves came with a cost: Veteran forwards Steve Rucchin and Mike Leclerc were traded for draft picks to fit the Ducks comfortably under the $39-million figure agreed upon in the new collective-bargaining agreement.

The trades of the two homegrown fan favorites haven't dimmed fan enthusiasm.

Though attendance at the Arrowhead Pond has lagged in the team's four home exhibitions, the Ducks have already sold more than 9,000 season tickets, the most since the 2000-01 season.

The promise of a different NHL also has reinvigorated the most seasoned players.

"As players started moving around in August and training camp got closer, I was pretty intrigued," said Scott Niedermayer, who won three Stanley Cup titles as a Devil. "It's going to be interesting. There's a lot of questions floating around out there that'll get answered. How the games are going to play themselves out? How teams are going to be? Are they going to compete and how good will they be? It's going to be something."

The combination of tightly-enforced rules on obstruction and an offensive mind-set should result in topping the Ducks' 2003-04 total of 183 goals, a figure that ranked 28th out of 30 teams.

A sound Selanne should add another proven scorer to a lineup with Fedorov, Petr Sykora and fast-improving Joffrey Lupul. The presence of Niedermayer strengthens an already solid defensive corps. Former first-round draft picks Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are waiting in the wings.

But there are also questions, most notably if goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere can shake off an erratic previous season and if chemistry can quickly be found with 13 new players.

"Changing the culture of a team is the most difficult thing in pro sports," Burke said.

"And that's what we're doing here."

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