Anaheim Ducks defenseman Scott Niedermayer looks for a teammate to pass to against the San Jose Sharks in the second period in Anaheim, Calif., Sunday. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Mark Avery
The trade finally happened. Their superstar defenceman has returned. Now it's time for the Anaheim Ducks to start winning some games.
"We feel with the addition of Scott Niedermayer back into our lineup and the change we've had to make, that it's given us a little shot in the arm," Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle told The Canadian Press on Monday.
"We're feeling better about ourselves today than we did five days ago."
It almost feels like the season is finally beginning for the defending Stanley Cup champions. They've got 47 games left to re-establish themselves as the powerhouse that overwhelmed the Ottawa Senators in last spring's final.
The first 35 games this season produced a 15-15-5 record, good for eighth in the Western Conference.
"We're not sitting here feeling real good about ourselves from a standpoint of what we've accomplished," said Carlyle. "We believe we're better than a .500 hockey club - .500 more than likely is not going to get you in the playoffs."
It's been a trying first two and half months of the season for Carlyle, one of the league's top coaches.
"It's been frustrating because we haven't found the key, we have been unable to unlock some of the magic, or the effort, the execution, that desperation that we were able to display for an extended period of time last year," said Carlyle. "That's probably the most frustrating thing. We're just looking at ourselves, 'What's going on? What's going on? Why, why, why?'
"We're not making excuses, but this is the reality of it," he added. "We've been battered and beaten a little bit and now is the time for our hockey club to make a statement."
If a team ever wanted to use excuses, the Ducks have them. There's the short summer every Cup champion goes through and finds difficult to recover from, a season that began several time zones away in London, England, the semi-retirement of Niedermayer, a long list of injuries, and the distraction of having to make a trade for salary-cap reasons in order to accommodate Niedermayer's return.
That finally happened Friday night when centre Andy McDonald was shipped to St. Louis in exchange for centre Doug Weight, a prospect and a seventh-round pick.
"It's no fun trading a player like Andy McDonald," Ducks GM Brian Burke said Monday. "He did a lot of wonderful things in a Ducks uniform and he's a quality person as well. Trading players of that calibre isn't easy. But we made a conscious decision. Our blueprint has been to build from the net out."
Dealing McDonald means the Ducks keep together perhaps the NHL's most impressive top four on defence: Niedermayer, Mathieu Schneider, Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin.
All four played together for the first time Sunday night when Niedermayer made his 2007-08 debut, a 2-1 shootout loss to San Jose.
"We think Scotty's addition fortifies our defence to the point where we feel that will be the strength of our hockey club," said Carlyle. "If we're strong on defence, we don't allow the opposition a great number of scoring chances, we move the puck more effectively out of our zone, we're in the offensive zone more often - all those things are important and we should improve on now.
"And we have to improve on them to have success."
Niedermayer played 23:52 in his return Sunday night, fourth-most on the team. So much for breaking him in slowly.
"His first game may be his best one," said Carlyle. "We worry about his next three or four. Will there be a fall-off? Because the guy hasn't played in a long time. That's what you worry about. But he's a special athlete."
Burke said the entire team must pull up its socks and not expect Niedermayer to save the day.
"Right now we're not playing that well as a group and one player won't change that," said Burke. "Putting Scotty back in the lineup won't change that right away. We got to get back to what made us successful."