ANAHEIM, Calif. - Teemu Selanne insists the Anaheim Ducks really are the team that surged through the past 3 1/2 months with one of the NHL's best records, not the sad sacks who bumbled into an inescapable hole in the standings to start the season.
While the Ducks packed up their lockers Monday after missing the playoffs for the second time in three years, the front office turned its attention to the essential question of the Ducks' off-season: Which of these teams will show up for camp in September if this talented roster stays largely intact?
"There's no question we feel like we're a playoff team, but it just seemed like in the first half of the year, everything went down," said the 41-year-old Selanne, who led the Ducks with 66 points. "It didn't turn around until it was too late. Sometimes it doesn't work, and somebody has to pay the price."
Selanne isn't alone in thinking the Ducks have the core of an elite team, but that's what general manager Bob Murray thought last fall, too.
For all of Anaheim's talent around MVP Corey Perry, captain Ryan Getzlaf and goalie Jonas Hiller, the Ducks have won just one post-season round in five years since winning California's only Stanley Cup in 2007 under coach Randy Carlyle, who was fired Nov. 30 when the Ducks' poor start lingered past Thanksgiving.
"It just didn't even feel real, what we were going through at the beginning of the year," defenceman Cam Fowler said of the Ducks' 10-22-6 start. "Nobody really understood what was going on."
Murray resisted the urge to blow up his roster last December when his club foundered and suitors called for Bobby Ryan, Getzlaf and defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky. Murray said he believed in the Ducks and expected more—and with a new coach, he finally got it.
Bruce Boudreau has been widely praised since replacing Carlyle, his friend and former teammate. The Ducks responded to his high-energy, acerbic style of coaching with an impressive run through January and February, even pushing within five points of a playoff spot before falling off in the final weeks.
"You could just tell we were a whole different team once Bruce came in and changed some things up," said the 20-year-old Fowler, who scored 29 points in an up-and-down sophomore season. "We knew that we certainly didn't play anywhere near to our capability early in the year. It's a shame, because it's a good group of guys in there, and definitely a team that could do some damage."
Anaheim went 27-23-8 under Boudreau, a hockey lifer who plans to play maybe one round of off-season golf before getting back to work scouting the Ducks' AHL prospects in Syracuse. He has trouble imagining the next couple of months without the post-season grind, and he doesn't intend to repeat this inactivity next year.
"We will get back there, I firmly believe that," Boudreau said. "When you have a top goaltender, when you have a couple of young defencemen you can build around, and three or four of the best forwards in the NHL, there is a core. We have all of those things. When I took the job, I looked at that part very closely. I didn't know what else we had, but I knew we had a core that was young enough, and we could build around them for years to come."
Boudreau might be the biggest reason to believe the Ducks can shake what's become a tradition of poor starts to the season, but the coach realizes change also must happen in the dressing room. Anaheim is sticking behind Getzlaf, the rugged Canadian forward who ascended to the captaincy two years ago after Scott Niedermayer retired.
Getzlaf, who held his toddler son in his arms Monday while saying goodbyes to the front office, acknowledged that new fatherhood affected his hockey preparation this season. He had his lowest-scoring full NHL season, managing just 57 points despite playing all 82 games after missing significant parts of the past two years with injuries.
"I think we proved in the second half that we're close," said Getzlaf, who scored a career-low 11 goals. "The way we played in the second half of that season would have put us right in the middle of it, but the hole that we dug was a little too deep for us to get out of. We've got to be aware of that coming into camp next year, and we'll be excited and ready to go."
Selanne will do his annual off-season evaluation of his future before deciding whether to return for a 21st NHL season. The Finnish Flash will have plenty of time for healing and training in a five-month off-season, and he certainly didn't seem to be finished with the Ducks on Monday, speaking in the present tense about their off-season challenges.
"It comes automatically, that feeling of, 'Is this over?'" Selanne said of the Ducks' season finale in Calgary. "You still want to be in the playoffs, and not finish (with the regular season). I know that in the last home game, there was a lot of desire still to play."