Anaheim Ducks right wing Corey Perry (10) congratulates Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere (35) after the Ducks defeated the Nashville Predators 2-1 in overtime after an NHL hockey game in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, March 24, 2009. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Frederick Breedon)
ANAHEIM, Calif. - A huge portion of the Anaheim Ducks' success rested squarely on Chris Pronger's broad shoulders over the past few seasons. The former MVP routinely played 30 minutes a game, fluidly moving the puck while clogging up opponents' offences and sometimes keeping the Ducks competitive all by himself.
Now that he's gone to Philadelphia in a money-saving trade, the Ducks' approach to every aspect of the game must change. It's too early to say how the post-Pronger Ducks will play, but Ryan Getzlaf thinks the early results are promising for a club with an enviable mix of veteran leadership and youthful talent.
"We lost Prongs and Beauche (defenceman Francois Beauchemin, who signed with Toronto), but we have some guys in here that can step up," said Getzlaf. "So we've definitely got the tools in here to fill those roles, but we're going to need some defencemen to play bigger minutes."
At least Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne were around from the first day of training camp to make sure the Ducks get off to a good start in Pronger's absence. The thirtysomething veterans both have been late to previous camps while deciding whether to keep playing, and Selanne claims this will be his last season - a prediction already doubted by Saku Koivu, his fellow Finn and new linemate in Anaheim.
Niedermayer, every bit Pronger's equal in responsibility and skill, knows he can't double his work efforts. Instead he'll get reinforcements from Anaheim's young defencemen, who are ready to make their first impact on the club.
"Our goal is to compete for a championship again," said Niedermayer. "Obviously, there's a lot of work and a lot of things that we need to worry about before we get there. We're a younger team than we were last year, and hopefully we can use that to our advantage."
The regular season begins appropriately Saturday night against the San Jose Sharks, who are still stinging from their first-round loss to the Ducks in last spring's playoffs. Anaheim shrugged off a mediocre two-thirds of the regular season with a strong regular-season finish and that impressive upset before stretching the Western Conference champion Detroit Red Wings to the limit in the second round.
The Ducks appeared to be a team on the rise last spring, with Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan growing into one of the NHL's best lines in front of an impressive defence and two quality goalies.
Pronger's departure erased every assumption about this season, yet his departure brought 19-year-old Luca Sbisa, who made the Ducks' roster in training camp and is likely to be paired with Niedermayer. Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski also must play expanded roles on defence.
Although the Ducks' defensive depth took a hit, they're still amply loaded in front of the net. Jonas Hiller and Jean-Sebastien Giguere are both back for another year after Hiller supplanted Anaheim's longtime starter last season and played splendidly during the post-season run.
"We can't live in the past and expect teams to be scared of us," Giguere said. "This team has changed a lot, and we're going to have to find ourselves an identity. If you ask around the room, I'm not sure if everybody would know what it is. But we need to find it, and quickly."
The biggest benefit of Pronger's departure was the Ducks' ability to pick up some secondary scoring for what increasingly became a one-line team in the playoffs against Detroit. Joffrey Lupul returned to Anaheim in the deal with Philadelphia, and the Ducks signed longtime Montreal captain Koivu to play on the second line with Lupul and Selanne.
Coach Randy Carlyle also won't be afraid to use younger players in bigger roles this seasons.
"They're going to run the bus here," Selanne said. "They're doing a great job. We've got so many young guys who can really do some damage in this lineup. Getz's line is our No. 1 line, and that's how it should be. But obviously our line wants to play well and do our part. Last year we didn't have enough depth offensively to support the top line."
Selanne also is excited about teaming with Koivu, a longtime friend and Olympic teammate. In addition to the good life in snow-free Orange County, Selanne also hopes to show Koivu some extended playoff success.
"I think there's a lot of potential here, and we look good on paper," said Koivu. "But the bottom line is that you've got to find that chemistry on the ice. With the talent that we have, if we can play as a five-man unit and as a team, I think we're going to be tough to beat."