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For Ducks' Scott Niedermayer, it's a new age

At 36, he takes the lead role with a young defense corps now that Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin are gone. The Ducks open Saturday against the Sharks.

October 02, 2009|Helene Elliott

Time has crept up politely on Ducks defenseman Scott Niedermayer, threading white through his hair without robbing him of the smooth, easy strides that make his skates seem natural extensions of his feet.

Niedermayer, who turned 36 in August, had the third-highest amount of ice time in the NHL last season at 2,207 minutes 49 seconds. His average of 26:55 per game ranked third, and he played more than anyone in the league while his team was short-handed, 377:35.

His poise and ability to read plays are undiminished, and his quiet confidence is so powerful that he is a prime candidate to be captain of the Canadian Olympic team at the Vancouver Games in February.

Though he may not show the years much, he feels them when he looks at his new defense partner, 19-year-old Luca Sbisa.

"He's closer in age to my kids than me," said a smiling Niedermayer, father of sons aged 10, 8, 5 and 1.

Playing with such a promising youngster is fun, he said last week as the Ducks prepared to open the season Saturday against San Jose at the Honda Center. "He seems like he's out there willing to learn," said Niedermayer, energized by his new role of teacher and mentor.

That became evident last winter after Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski arrived in separate trades, jolting Niedermayer and the Ducks out of their doldrums and sparking a second-half surge that ended only in the seventh game of their second-round playoff series against Detroit.

"Any time there's a change, it's new, it's fresh," Niedermayer said. "I think I was probably no different than the entire team. We were sort of caught in a bit of a rut through most of last season and when those changes were made it got everybody's attention, mine included."

The off-season brought additional momentous changes on defense. Chris Pronger, a fearsome force and one of two players who averaged more ice time than Niedermayer last season, was traded to Philadelphia for Sbisa, winger Joffrey Lupul and draft picks. Bruiser Francois Beauchemin left as a free agent.

Niedermayer is the only defenseman left from the group that was so vital to the Ducks' 2007 Stanley Cup title. He's not sure how this season will unfold, but he was intrigued enough by the possibilities to sign a one-year contract in July soon after his previous four-year deal expired.

"I'm going to watch him all day long, watch how he prepares for games, how he does little things," Sbisa said. "I'm pretty confident I'll take a lot of things from him this season."

The man called "irreplaceable" by General Manager Bob Murray must be the Ducks' glue if they're going to regroup on defense and compete with the NHL's elite.

They can count on explosive scoring from the line of sniper Bobby Ryan, ascendant star Ryan Getzlaf and gritty Corey Perry, the equal of nearly any trio in the NHL. Saku Koivu steadied himself after a rocky start to training camp and should create secondary scoring.

But without Niedermayer as a catalyst and calming influence, the Ducks would be lost.

It's that simple.

"It's an honor and a privilege to be able to learn from one of the best," said Wisniewski, 25. "It's improving my game."

Think what it will do for Sbisa.

"He plays exactly the type of game I want to play," Sbisa said. "It doesn't matter if there's a big generation between us."

When Niedermayer broke into the NHL with New Jersey in the early 1990s he had an impressive array of tutors in Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, Bruce Driver, Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov. He's passing his knowledge to Sbisa and Wisniewski and anyone smart enough to watch him reshape a defense that's likely to miss the muscular Pronger.

"A player like Chris, he's a big part of all aspects of the game. It's going to change how we do things on the back end," Niedermayer said. "But you look and there seems to be a lot of depth out here right now."

Whitney and Wisniewski, he said, "understand they're going to be asked to do more than they did last year, and I think they're excited about that. I think they're players that want that, and I think they're going to do a good job."

The camaraderie within the team and his belief the Ducks are capable of another Cup run were key motivations behind his return.

"That's been an enjoyable part of it, just realizing each year -- each day, for that matter -- is a new challenge," he said. "Each year with a different group and a different set of circumstances, how does it play out? How do you meet those challenges? All that type of thing, trying to be consistent and all that, that's a fun part of the challenge."

He will face this test without his brother, Rob, whose presence in Anaheim drew Scott here in 2005. They wanted to win the Cup together and did, but the Ducks didn't retain Rob this summer. He recently signed with New Jersey.

"It was a little tough when I got here for camp because we were together quite a bit and for four years it was a great time for both of us," Scott said. "We're thankful for that."

He has much to be grateful for: teammates he likes, the rare chance to play in the Olympics in his home province, and four healthy sons -- one for each Cup ring he has won. What would he do with a fifth ring?

"Yeah, it's balanced right now," he said, laughing. "Every time you start the season your goal is to win a championship, at least when you're with a team that can do that. I have that same feeling this year, and maybe there are some questions as to how that may play out, but I still think if we can answer some of those we should have a really good hockey club.

"So I'm looking for No. 5 and we can look for that other side of it later."

--

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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