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HELENE ELLIOTT

Key moves rescued Ducks

General Manager Bob Murray pulled off a series of season-saving deals in six days.

April 15, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

The Ducks were drifting through the season, winning a few games here and losing a few there, their early 8-0-1 surge nearly forgotten and their playoff prospects circling the drain.

Their forwards were listless. Their defense, minus the injured Francois Beauchemin, had trouble moving the puck out of its zone and was slow. That led to the goaltending becoming too iffy too often.

Bob Murray, who succeeded Brian Burke as general manager in mid-November, had some hard decisions to make and little salary-cap space to play with.

Despite those impediments, Murray pulled off a series of season-saving deals in six days.

By adding defensemen Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski and forwards Petteri Nokelainen and Erik Christensen, he filled several holes and restored some of the speed and depth that had vanished.

More than that, the players he brought in created a spark that carried the Ducks through a 10-2-1 finish and into a first-round playoff matchup against the Sharks that will start Thursday in San Jose.

"I've always wondered what was wrong with that other group, what went south on that other group," Murray said. "I'll never know now.

"But this group has given this team . . . we have some life."

Though none of the newcomers has been spectacular, each has contributed to the Ducks' revival.

Nokelainen, still regaining his timing and fitness after an eye injury, has a healthy 53.4% faceoff winning percentage. Wisniewski, rugged but mobile, recorded eight assists in the Ducks' last nine games and is a fearless shot blocker, especially while killing penalties. Whitney's 10 assists in 20 games helped, too, as did Christensen's 65.6% faceoff success in the last 11 games and his ability to shift from center to wing.

There are other elements in this rebirth, though, that are less easy to quantify.

Like the way the team's mood lightens when Whitney chirps from the back of the bus. Or the way Wisniewski, 25, jokes with teammates while seriously making the most of this opportunity to learn his craft from veterans Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger.

All it took to make Niedermayer grin after a tough practice Tuesday at the Honda Center was a request to analyze the late arrivals' impact.

"They're fun. They're characters," he said. "You need to have guys like that in a room. You're together a lot and you can't be serious all the time.

"I'm not the most lighthearted guy, and we didn't have a lot of that in the room before. So to bring in a couple of guys like that, that are smiling and laughing and having fun, I think is good."

The first to arrive was Whitney, acquired from Pittsburgh on Feb. 26 for gritty left wing Chris Kunitz and prospect Eric Tangradi. Though not in top condition after undergoing foot surgery last fall, he averaged 22 minutes 52 seconds in 17 games with the Ducks and took some of the puck-moving burden off Niedermayer and Pronger.

Sometimes he even pleased Coach Randy Carlyle, a Norris Trophy winner in his playing days and very demanding of his defensemen.

"Playing for Randy, there's an adjustment period, and we're starting to see what happens," Murray said. "Beauchemin didn't fit immediately, if you recall, so it takes a little bit of time.

"But I think people stick to what Randy wants. He makes them all some money and they win, and that's a good combination."

Nokelainen, Wisniewski and Christensen were acquired on trade-deadline day, March 4, and made their Ducks debuts two days later. The Ducks lost that game and the one after that and three out of four.

"The first couple of games they played real well and got nothing for it and they could have easily folded the tent," Murray said. "But to their credit, they kept going."

Christensen, who started out at left wing on Ryan Getzlaf's line but has fit better with Andrew Ebbett and Teemu Selanne, said the turnaround could have been a matter of chemistry or a matter of time.

"This team was out of it when I got here," he said. "I haven't played a huge role. We have a lot of big-time players in this locker room. Maybe it was just a wake-up call for everyone to just give that extra 10%."

It was a call that everyone has answered.

"It was a big change, and maybe that's what we needed," Niedermayer said. "We were kind of struggling to really find our way and there were some big changes made then. We have managed to play better. . . . It's still taking the guys in here to go out and compete hard for each other, play the way the coaching staff wants us to, all those things needed to happen and they have lately."

--

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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