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Franchise Changer

The addition of top-flight defenseman Niedermayer has transformed the Ducks in more ways than they can count

April 20, 2006|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Could a $27-million purchase actually be considered a bargain?

In the case of Scott Niedermayer of the Mighty Ducks, the answer is unequivocal.

"He's been worth every penny and more," said Duck General Manager Brian Burke, the man who made the deal.

Among teammates, the answer is the same. Only with it comes a tone of awe, the kind that greatness demands.

"He's definitely the best player I've ever played with," said goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who has had such top scorers as Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya as teammates. "I've played with a lot of guys. Teemu's a great player who's right up there. He's as good as they get.

"But Scott ... he's just a step above everybody. It's like he's an exception."

There is always risk with big-ticket acquisitions. A look at the buying spree that followed the NHL lockout last August points up some that worked (Kariya, Peter Forsberg), and some that didn't (Jeremy Roenick, Nikolai Khabibulin).

And then there is Niedermayer, the reigning Norris Trophy winner, who has changed the fortunes of a franchise.

He has been front and center of a team that on Friday will face the Calgary Flames in Canada in Game 1 of a Western Conference first-round playoff series.

"Scott has been the heartbeat of that team," said Doug Wilson, San Jose Shark general manager. "He's been driving it with his leadership and how he plays. He's had an outstanding year."

At 32, Niedermayer has never been better. But ask him about his play and he deftly deflects the question as if he's knocking the puck away from a rushing forward with a single swipe of his stick.

"You hope you always get a little better," he said. "Maybe a little smarter. Maybe I'm a little slower and what not, but I think you can make up for that with experience. You're always learning the game."

There is rising sentiment around the NHL that he should win the Norris again as the top defender, in a year where Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom and Dallas' Sergei Zubov have had equally worthy seasons.

But neither Lidstrom nor Zubov has had to lift a team the way Niedermayer has, and do it while having midseason knee surgery.

At the start of the season, the Ducks were a rebuilt franchise -- new owner, new general manager, new coaches, new players. But one of those new guys was Niedermayer.

"He's the best defenseman by far," Vancouver Canuck captain Trevor Linden said.

Phoenix Coyote Coach Wayne Gretzky takes it a step further: "Niedermayer definitely has to have consideration not only for the best defenseman in the league, but he deserves a great deal of consideration for maybe being even an MVP."

After leaving New Jersey and three Cups behind to sign his rich four-year deal, and to play with his brother Rob, Niedermayer has set career marks for assists (50) and points (63) while helping his new team set a club record for most goals in a season.

Then there are the intangibles. His uncanny ability to read a play and set up a teammate or become a finisher. His awareness to skate back into defensive position when the puck heads in the other direction.

"The difference is with a guy like Scotty, he has the ability to do some of those things and yet be able to put himself in position to recover with his skating," Duck Coach Randy Carlyle said. " ... You think he's gotten caught and then you watch him skate and come back and poke the puck out with his stick defensively. How do you do that?

"There's all of those things. But that's the complete package. When you see him every day, you tend to take it for granted."

Ask Calgary Coach Darryl Sutter about the game plan against the Ducks in this series and the answer is no surprise. "They've got the best defenseman in the National Hockey League," Sutter said. "That's what strikes you first. He's just a dominant, dominant player.

"With a guy like Scotty, he's so dominant in the whole game. But I'm not speaking like I'm the first guy on the mountain that said that."

Niedermayer says he is grateful to have come up in an organization where he could learn from Scott Stevens and Vyacheslav Fetisov. Now, he is the teacher.

"I think it's the reason why I'm having such a good year," said rookie defense partner Francois Beauchemin.

The Ducks have emulated their cool-headed leader. They didn't panic after an 8-11-4 start while trying to fit many new pieces together.

Then there was Niedermayer's difficult decision to skip the Winter Olympics and repair his right knee. How much is his value? Canada, the heavy Olympic favorite, didn't make it to the medal round.

"You saw how much it affected Team Canada," Vancouver Coach Marc Crawford said. "They weren't the same without him."

Niedermayer didn't miss a game for the Ducks though.

"That says a lot about a guy," center Todd Marchant said. "It's one of those things that doesn't have to be said. Everyone recognizes it and understands where his priorities are."

Times staff writer Helene Elliott contributed to this report.

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