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September 19, 2011 :: 4:12pm ET
Stealth Ducks
With all the attention in Southern California focused on the Los Angeles Kings this off-season, the Anaheim Ducks quietly return a 99 point roster virtually intact.

LOS ANGELES -- There's nothing like trading for a two-time All Star and having a contract impasse with a 22-year-old All Star defenseman to move the spotlight away from a team that includes the reigning MVP and a first ballot Hall of Famer on its roster.

With the shepherding of Mike Richards 3,000 miles west and the unwillingness of Drew Doughty to become a millionaire 50 times over, the Anaheim Ducks operate in the anonymity of an off-season that resulted in the core of a 99 point, four-seed team returning to the ice as a live underdog to win the NHL's Pacific Division.

Even further north, the loyalists that pack the Shark Tank to near capacity swear by the annual GM ADHD that seems to cast a spell over Doug Wilson every summer. Though his team made the final four, Wilson felt the need to shake up the chemistry in the room and reduce the firepower on ice when he dealt Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi away in favor of Brent Burns, who will improve the power play but needs to work on his consistency, and Martin Havlat, whose play in the post-season usually outshines his output in the regular season.

Could the Sharks win the West? They could, but we feel they could just as likely come third in a three-dog race. The moves along the forward wall shuttle Joe Pavelski into the top-six in favor of Michal Handzus as the designee for third line pivot and may shift California hockey supremacy away from the 408 area code.

All three teams stand to exceed the century mark with the major hits taken by the other two members of the Pacific, the Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes. While the Stars clear the deck in anticipation of new owner Tom Gagliardi, his new coin didn't arrive in time to keep their best player, Brad Richards, around. Likewise for the Desert Dogs, whose fight to stay in their Arizona digs made it impossible to match the green that the Philadelphia Flyers through Ilya Bryzgalov's way. While the netminder who cashes bi-monthly checks that total $10 million this season was one of two reasons Phoenix made the playoffs (the management team of Don Maloney and Dave Tippett the other), it remains to be seen if he can carry a team with forwards that are likely too young and defense too long in the tooth to a deep playoff run. While the 30-year-old goalie can buy the Bentley of his choice and does own a Stanley Cup ring, his total of playoff victories is an even dozen. Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur aren't sweating.

But let's go back to one of Bryzgalov's former employers, the Ducks. The final piece of the puzzle was put in place last week when Teemu Selanne decided his right knee could handle the rigors and punishment of the nine month, 100 game marathon. The ageless wonder had been at the knee crossroads before; coming out of the lockout Brian Burke game him a final shot after a terrible season in Colorado. What was thought to be a last hurrah in an effort to sell some additional ducats has turn into a six-year second marriage with a Stanley Cup as one of the wedding presents. The twist in this story is that for the first time in five years, the question wasn't about this first ballot Hall of Famer's mental outlook; it was purely a matter of his body cooperating with him. Coming off an amazing 31 goal, 80 point season at 40 years of age, "It wasn't if I wanted to play, it's if I could play," he related in a media conference call. Though the Nashville Predators would swear there was nothing wrong with his wheels in the playoffs, as six goals in six games told that story, his knee was barking silently.

The thought of a summer of relaxation would provide the healing powers necessary to support a final victory lap (in true storybook fashion, it will open in his Finnish homeland as the Ducks are part of the Premiere Series), but as the calendar turned to July, Teemu knew the fairy tale was imploding.

The decision to go under the knife was made in the early days of the month and only in late August did the knee respond as required. The question wasn't could he play, it was if it could be at an elite level. With his legacy and back account secure, the deciding factor in his return was his belief that the Ducks can be something special. He will be reunited with friend Saku Koivu and Jason Blake to form a Geezer line to support the younger heavy hitters that comprise the best top line in the NHL when all its members are healthy. Reigning MVP Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan potentially better than the current Hart Trophy winner, flank Ryan Getzlaf, one of two X factors in the fate of this season's gaggle of Ducks.

We'll leave Getzlaf to close this show and turn to the other man whose health looms large in the exploits of the Anaheim sextet.

Goaltender Jonas Hiller, playing behind a defense no one would confuse with the 1976 Montreal Canadiens, was on track to a Vezina nomination when a mysterious ailment eventually diagnosed as vertigo robbed him of all but three games of his season after a Jan. 25 appearance against San Jose.

With the Ducks in a heated battle to capture a post season berth, Jonas strapped on the pads in a pivotal contest against Nashville on Mar. 24. He didn't last 12 minutes, surrendering three goals in the short stretch and when he skated to the locker room, it would be the last time he would face a puck in anger. Thankfully for the team, Perry had magic in his stick that would make the team's former owners, the Walt Disney Company jealous and the Ducks, despite playing with two backup goaltenders and a woefully banged up defense (Lubomir Visnovsky's shoulders were so painful last spring that he couldn’t pick up his kids) landed not only a playoff spot but home ice advantage.

There was only so much magic to go around in Orange County last season and in the first round, the Predators wrested the Cinderella crown away from the Ducks after six games. Although Ray Emery fashioned a sweet comeback tale of his own with a 7-2 record down the stretch of the regular season, GM Bob Murray didn't think enough of his body of work to extend a new deal when the bell rang on free agency on July 1. While that move raised some eyebrows of Ducks supporters (leaving only Dan Ellis and his Twitter issues in support of the question mark that was Hiller), it should be noted that none of the other 29 GMs felt compelled enough to sign Emery on the line that is dotted. While Ray could make the Chicago Blackhawks with a good training camp, Murray didn't feel the former Senator and Flyer was a strong enough insurance policy.

While the Ducks may be fretting privately about Hiller's condition, their management stands united: "Right now, he's 100 percent and we don't expect that would change," proclaimed Head Coach Randy Carlyle on the opening day of camp.

So with the front office crossing their fingers and toes that their $4.5 million man in between pipes suffers no more dizziness, the real key to this team is its number one center Getzlaf. His last two seasons haven't been marked with mystery like his unfortunate goaltender, but rather with injuries that dog hockey players who play with the power that the Ducks 2003 first round draft choice brings to the ice every night. Two seasons ago, the combination of a leg laceration and left ankle injury robbed him of 16 regular season games and derailed the Ducks playoff chances, the only time in his NHL career that he missed the post season.

On Dec. 28, 2010, Getzlaf's hockey luck took a very bad turn for the worse, while positioning himself in the slot against the Coyotes; a shot from the point connected flush with his face. The power forward slumped to the ice as if he was shot and many thought that the Ducks would be eliminated from the playoffs when he missed 14 consecutive games as a result.

It was at that point Carlyle rallied his troops and performed arguably his best coaching job during his tenure in Anaheim. While he had a mountain of help from Perry, the coach never panicked. He kept them focused and within striking distance for the final quarter of the season.

 While Perry was the lead dog in the stretch, he wouldn't have done it without a return from his facilitator. Getzlaf continued his point a game pace in the first round of the playoffs but with the defense and goaltending exposed, the offensive minded Ducks flew south after one round.

As training camp opens, expectations are high as pound for pound the Ducks match up against any team offensively. While no one expects Perry to ring up another half century, it's reasonable to expect 40 markers from him. While that decrease in production could be the difference between a three seed and an eight, Ryan eclipsing 40 on the other flank is not only reasonable but should be expected by a player's whose development continues perfectly.

If Getzlaf can get to 95-100 point plateau (yes, it would be career high but all the assets are in place), they will be the NHL's version of the Philadelphia Eagles, a team with so many weapons they'll dare you to join them in a track meet in the hopes of outlasting you.

Rookie Cam Fowler and 21-year-old Luca Sbisa had tough years from a plus/minus standpoint (a combined minus-36), but they gained valuable experience and logged big minutes. The former, the Ducks first-round 2010 draft pick showed great prowess with man advantage, racking up six goals and 17 assists on the Ducks top five powerplay. While he has a long way to go in his own zone, which will come with more experience and time in the weight room, Fowler equaled the offensive production of the more heralded Doughty last season. Visnovsky sped around the ice in the first days of camp while Lydman, hugely underrated is still testing his repaired shoulder. While he toils in anonymity in the Ducks galaxy of stars, he provides stability and a 32 plus/minus rating (and the best home rating in the league) that was second only to Zdeno Chara last year. While his torn labrum is not 100 per cent, jeopardizing his participation in the Premiere Series, his presence in the lineup in as essential as any of his higher profile teammates.

If the Ducks can heal some wounded wings, they are as a legitimate contender as the Kings and Sharks to win the division. They have a top line that is arguably the best the NHL has to offer, a possible Vezina nominee between the pipes and a locker room that is united with a bunch of rings.

While Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf have lifted the Cup once before, the room wasn't theirs at the time; they were precocious youngsters and were deferential to living legends like Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. While the kudos, accolades and hardware have been bestowed upon them, they now serve as its core and are in their hockey prime.

This season is the one where Perry and Getzlaf need to prove they can carry this franchise to at a minimum a deep playoff run if not to a second Stanley Cup championship.

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for
You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.



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