While the Ducks were missing the playoffs last spring for the second time in three seasons, the Kings were winning the Stanley Cup and captivating the modest but passionate local hockey audience.
The Ducks were pushed to the brink of oblivion and they won't find it easy to regain even a sliver of the spotlight. After ending their season in April and being kept off the ice when a labor dispute delayed the start of this season, they're facing a pivotal moment as a team and as a franchise.
They've made strides toward fixing their on-ice problems, at least. Notorious for slow starts, they're 2-0-0 for only the second time in club history as they prepare for their home opener against Vancouver on Friday at the Honda Center.
Their biggest gain is the early success of Andrew Cogliano, Saku Koivu and Daniel Winnik as the effective third line the Ducks have lacked since their 2007 Cup triumph. Depth will be precious in this hectic 48-game schedule, and after years of questionable quality beyond their top five forwards and instability on defense, the Ducks appear to have replenished their talent and their resolve.
"It certainly didn't leave a good taste in our mouths after the season we had last year. With the guys we have in here, we knew that we had a lot better," defenseman Cam Fowler said. "Coming into this season I think it's just a different attitude, a different mentality."
Whether the Ducks can turn a good beginning into a playoff berth will be crucial in determining whether they can become a major presence in a sports-saturated market. Their 2011-12 attendance average of 14,754 was the second-lowest in their last eight seasons, and their season-ticket base has stayed flat at 9,800, balanced by lockout-driven cancellations and new buyers.
"It's always critical out here just because we're not in a market where fans are just going to come. We're not in a Canadian market. And I'm not complaining," General Manager Bob Murray said Thursday about the importance of this season.
"We have a certain amount of fans who are great fans and loyal fans. It's pivotal in keeping those other people who have lots of opportunities to do different things. Right now I'm sure we lost a bunch to the L.A. Kings, but there's some out there for us to get back. In that way, it's always pivotal for us to be competitive."
Ducks owners Henry and Susan Samueli continue to pump money into the arena, which they manage but don't own. They've committed $20 million to the Grand Terrace project, which will add a restaurant and expanded team store this spring, and have spent $80 million on improvements since they bought the Ducks from Disney in 2005.
Some of that went toward bringing the locker rooms up to NBA standards in the now-failed hopes of luring the Sacramento Kings to Orange County. The arena is profitable but the Ducks are not — Forbes pegged the team's operating loss last season at $10.8 million — and the addition of an NBA team could cushion the Samuelis' Ducks-related losses.
They got some relief when the new collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the players' association made the Ducks eligible for revenue sharing for the first time, but the impact won't be clear until revenues are calculated after the season.
The Samuelis declined interview requests, but Murray said Henry Samueli "wants to build something good here. He's in it for the long haul. He's been good this year. He's excited that we're playing." Murray added, "We truly believe at some point in this CBA it will get to a level playing field, and that's all we ask…. We're anxious for that day to come and we think it's around the corner."
Their day of reckoning, though, might arrive sooner.
Elite forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry can become unrestricted free agents this summer and Murray might not be able to fit both into a salary cap that will go to $64.3 million in 2013-14. The issue will hang over the team as long as it's unresolved, though both players have said they're already tired of discussing it. Murray, too, is reluctant to say much.
"It's a priority from Henry and Susan for me to try my hardest to get them signed," Murray said. "I've reached out to their representatives and at some point in the near future they're coming to see me. And that's all I'm going to say — that it's a priority."
The first order of business, though, is continuing their good start and giving themselves a chance to win points and fans. "You've just got to get in the playoffs. I believe anybody that gets in can win this year," Murray said. "I don't care if it's one or if it's eight. Anything can happen."