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Ducks move on, with holes to fill

November 13, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

On his first day as the Ducks' former general manager, Brian Burke traded his suit for jeans and sandals, perfectly suitable year-round in Anaheim but not the best choice for November in Toronto or wherever he spends the next hockey season.

Burke can leave the open-toe footwear behind with the team he handed to his former assistant, Bob Murray, who succeeded him Wednesday with a new contract that runs through 2011-12. The shoes might have a longer shelf life than the Ducks, built to win this season but not currently deep enough to get past the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings or invigorated San Jose Sharks.

"Obviously, people who are leaving a job tend to want to leave a monument and talk about what a great team they left," Burke said, "and the guy coming in wants to point out all the holes in the hull."

There are holes. Not enough to sink the ship this season but to endanger its voyage soon after.

Murray, Burke's top assistant for three-plus seasons, cited a lack of secondary scoring as a primary concern and said Brendan Morrison has had enough time to show what he can do, surgically repaired knee or not. A scoring winger on that line is another need, he said.

He could have added that he must address the big drop-off after anchor defensemen Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin, a weakness since Burke traded Sean O'Donnell to get under the cap. Murray has only $800,000 in cap space to fix all of this.

Burke said he had "delivered" here, and that's true. He took a wealth of talent assembled by his predecessor, Bryan Murray, totally rebuilt the defense, added some toughness and brought the Cup to the West Coast. The Kings still haven't accomplished that despite a 26-year head start.

But Burke was stretching the truth by saying the Ducks have "as good a defense as any in the NHL." The Red Wings have the best claim to that. Looking beyond the next few months, when players such as Niedermayer, Beauchemin, Sammy Pahlsson and Travis Moen will finish their contracts, Burke was stretching the truth a lot by saying he's leaving a team that's in good shape.

The Ducks have such limited cap space they couldn't keep prized prospect Bobby Ryan, who might solve that second-line wing problem. Burke brought some of the woes on himself with his wrongheaded acquisition of Todd Bertuzzi, whom he later bought out, and by overpaying Mathieu Schneider, who was discarded before this season.

Recalling the cap squeeze, Burke backtracked a step.

"It's not that Bob Murray is inheriting a walk through the park," Burke said.

More like a stroll along a narrow cliff.

Burke's departure was inevitable from the moment last season he left a lucrative extension on the table, hesitant to continue commuting between coasts to see the four children from his first marriage and the two young children from his second marriage.

It's best that he handed over the keys to the company car and executive washroom 17 games into the Ducks' season than if he had let the question linger. The perils of uncertainty were illustrated by last season's team, which was undermined by speculation over Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne's extended post-Cup sabbaticals.

"I think some ways it's going to help the team. We can move on with that," Selanne said.

"We kind of knew that Brian was probably going to have other challenges coming up, and what he's done for this organization is unbelievable."

The Ducks have taken on Burke's personality. He likes fast, physical hockey and the Ducks have always been willing -- often too willing -- to take the body and sometimes take a penalty. His coups were signing Niedermayer, who wanted to play alongside brother Rob, and acquiring Pronger, who has caused opponents headaches with his ruthless hits and given the Ducks a few headaches with his many suspensions.

The Ducks are unapologetic about being combative, just as Burke is -- and was -- during a silly war of words he initiated with Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe after Lowe lured Dustin Penner away from Anaheim with a rich offer sheet.

Burke was sometimes blustery, sometimes defiant, but he made sure his players looked beyond themselves and became involved in the community. He wasn't always successful but he never was dull.

"Burkie's not someone that's easily lost," said Ryan Getzlaf, a franchise cornerstone. "He's done an excellent job here."

Now he moves on to the next job, leaving Murray big sandals to fill.

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

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