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Helene Elliott

Ducks erasing question marks

September 20, 2008|Helene Elliott

Brendan Morrison couldn't believe his eyes.

One minute he was being asked to say "aaah" during his pre-training camp physical and the next he was meeting Teemu Selanne, a 10-time All-Star who has scored 552 goals and is likely to skate beside him after the Ducks trade Mathieu Schneider and resolve their salary-cap woes.

There was no need to prompt Morrison to say "aaah" when he saw Selanne. His awe was spontaneous.

"I was pretty excited about that," Morrison said. "I knew when I did sign here that there was a chance he might be coming back. And I knew there was an opportunity that if he did come back I might have a chance to play with him.

"He's world-class. He's a game-breaker. He's a phenomenal player."

Best of all, Selanne was there.

So was defenseman Scott Niedermayer, looking recharged after a summer that became way too long when the Ducks were eliminated by Dallas in the first round of the playoffs.

Both took post-Stanley Cup sabbaticals last season and were profoundly missed. The Ducks weren't whole without them, and their absence created an air of uncertainty that lifted only after Selanne returned in February. General Manager Brian Burke should have given each player a firm deadline of Nov. 15 to make a decision but instead allowed them to take their time, and the team suffered for it.

This season Burke didn't have to deliver an ultimatum.

Selanne, 38, is so eager to play that he couldn't wait for Burke to trade Schneider. To Burke's astonishment, Selanne showed up at the Honda Center on Friday morning and signed a pro tryout agreement, which doesn't provide insurance if he's injured.

"I've been a risk-taker all my life," Selanne said. "I've been skating six weeks. Any day something could happen.

"I don't think you can live life with fear and think, 'What if something happens?' "

Niedermayer said in June that he'd return for the final season of his contract, though he said Friday the thought of continuing through 2009-10 to play for Canada in the Vancouver Olympics had resonated with him.

That's another topic for another day.

For now, it's enough that Niedermayer has brought his quiet determination to a team that will need his steady head and sure passing, and that Selanne has brought his energy and scoring touch to a team whose offense was among the NHL's most feeble last season.

The Ducks' makeup won't be clear until Schneider's situation is resolved. Burke said Friday many of the deals he has discussed involve "more assets than just one player," which could mean draft picks and taking back at least one sizable contract.

But having Selanne and Niedermayer in camp from the start eliminated the biggest doubts the Ducks could have faced and gave them an emotional boost.

"There's always things out of your control that happen, as professional athletes, as people, in life," Niedermayer said.

"We're ready for those things, but I think we're excited to get the ball rolling right now."

Niedermayer, 35, acknowledged he will have to recalibrate his body and mind to withstand the stress of 82 games after playing only 48 games last season.

"I felt good every day I showed up at the rink," he said, smiling. "We'll all hope that that happens again this year and go from there."

The question becomes how far they can go with a full season of Selanne and Niedermayer. And with Morrison centering the second line, which became a weak spot after they traded Andy McDonald for salary reasons and Doug Weight failed to make an impact there.

The Ducks also are hoping to see progress from Bobby Ryan, who's still developing after being chosen second in the 2005 draft. If he can carry over the knack that helped him produce eight goals and 20 points in 16 American Hockey League playoff games last spring, the Ducks will have a more-than-respectable group of top-six forwards.

"We've got a lot of skill on the top two lines," said Morrison, who plans to be cautious early in camp in deference to his surgically repaired right knee but said he hadn't felt any soreness.

"Some good young players up front too. Some big bodies. I think we've got speed up there. A good combination. I'm very optimistic that we can score some goals."

If Burke's estimate that he will move Schneider within three or four days proves accurate, the last air of uncertainty surrounding the Ducks should vanish.

"I think it's always an advantage that you have all your ducks in order if that's something you desire," Coach Randy Carlyle said.

Almost as good as having all the Ducks in order. It's up to Burke to get that done, and soon.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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