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January 10, 2013 | 12:29am ET

Murray's Choice
 Anaheim Ducks General Manager Bob Murray may soon be faced with the most difficult decision of his managerial career.

LOS ANGELES -- As the reverberations of the Brian Burke firing hit the Pacific shores, one of his successors will be feeling the heat around his heels shortly.

The Anaheim Ducks franchise is at a crossroads; the coming weeks will define if this team stays legitimate or hits full rebuild mode.

They've missed the playoffs two out of the last three years and fell to the Pacific Division basement off a disastrous 80 point 2011-12 season, 19 points off the pace of their prior campaign. They've only gone deeper than one playoff round once in the past five years leading to dwindling crowds and the speculation that they're one of the 'dire straits' teams that needed revenue sharing help during the CBA battle.

While the team staggers on and off the ice, the even-worse news is that the organizational depth won't bring much help any time soon. While possessing two youngsters with good upside in Luca Sbisa and Cam Fowler on the blueline, the lack of NHL-ready talent forced GM Bob Murray to make the questionable signings of aging veterans Sheldon Souray and Bryan Allen to overpriced three-year deals over the summer.

Devante Smith-Pelly is likely to develop into a nice power forward and 2010 first-round pick Emerson Etem may provide further skill on the wing down the line, but the Ducks enter the season without a legitimate No. 2 center.

Nick Bonnino could be the incumbent over time and Saku Koivu makes Teemu Selanne's last season much happier, but neither pivot is the man to come over the boards after Ryan Getzlaf. The depth chart in the middle makes it impossible for Anaheim to be competitive in the Western Conference. There still is talent upfront with their four top forwards: Getzlaf, Selanne, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, but their statuses are the crux of Murray's impending dilemma.

Addressing Ryan, he's the one that the Ducks can't afford to move; he's a pure scorer who was seventh in the league in even-strength goals last season. His ability to get to the 30 goal plateau without being on the Ducks first unit powerplay is a further proof of his offensive skills. Ryan and former coach Randy Carlyle had ongoing beef and Ducks fans hope that Bruce Boudreau will let Bobby be Bobby, give him more time on the powerplay in an effort to get him more scoring opportunities. In a full 82 game season, he's a legit 40 goal scorer with the proper coaching.

The lone bright spot of this year may be the last waltz of Teemu Selanne and all hockey fans should be grateful that the L word didn't rob us of a victory lap by the Finnish Flash. A true ambassador of the game and a role model for players like Perry, he may be facing a decision come the April trade deadline. Selanne possesses a no-movement clause in his one-year deal and if the Ducks waddle outside of a playoff spot as expected, Murray may give Teemu the option of one last run at a Stanley Cup. It's always been the plan to retire in a Ducks sweater, but to see his final days played in games of no consequence should be a call left to the future Hall of Famer.

While the status of Ryan and Selanne is simple math, the destiny of the latter two -- and with it the short-term future of the franchise -- is at hand.

Barring a miracle when they drop the puck for real in nine days, both Getzlaf and Perry will skate into their walk year of twin five-year, $26.5 million deals. Neither star players has addressed their contract status publicly during the lockout, though Murray was adamant last June about his goal.

"I think it's imperative for the hockey team. We've reached out to the agents and that will be an ongoing process. I don't think it's going to happen overnight. But we've reached out to both sides," said Murray.

Further impacting the scenario is the Ducks' financial situation;'s annual valuation of NHL franchises in November of 2012 estimated Anaheim incurring an operating loss of $10 million for the last fiscal year. While the Ducks have plenty of cap space next season (Teemu, Saku and Toni Lydman will free up over $11 million), it's unclear whether ownership still has the inclination to committing in the neighborhood of $100 million for two players.

Management's stress level goes higher considering both players can just play out the string and listen to numerous pitches from contenders (here's a scary scenario, Sidney Crosby feeding Corey Perry for 82 games) with deep pockets. That's why in a 48 game schedule, it's imperative for the Ducks to get out of the gate fast and that is the antithesis of the last two seasons. If Anaheim came with a 7-3 start, it's an easier sell that continuing their careers in Southern California is the right choice. The likelihood of a big start isn't reality; only if the Ducks can convince the NHL that they could open with 10 straight against Columbus do they have a shot of a big opening run.

My scenario sees an end game like this: The Ducks will have to make a choice, overpay one of their stars on a long-term extension and trade the other to the highest bidder to bring back the assets to build around the long remaining superstar.

Comparing Perry and Getzlaf would seem to be a simple exercise; Corey's been clutch, two seasons removed from a 50 goal, Hart Trophy season, and his competitive nature burns every night, always willing to chirp the opposition and among the league leaders in that skill too.

Getzlaf's stats have been in decline, he's gone from 91 points in 2008-09 to a 57-point season last year that was a failure in every way. Aside from the precipitous drop in production, lowlighted by a season low 11 goals, the big center was a minus player for the first time in his career (-11 was the worst of any Ducks forward) and his faceoff percentage landed at a shade over 47%. His penchant for taking bad penalties at crucial times increased and there were whispers he was resistant to work at his game to improve, primarily in the faceoff circle.

So it's a no brainer, move the underachiever and keep former MVP, right?

Not exactly.

The winning NHL franchises' formula has been uniform over the past few seasons. Goaltending and defense are a must, but the teams in it to win have strength down the middle. Murray need do nothing more than look 50 miles north to Los Angeles and see how Dean Lombardi crafted his championship roster.

Even with the magnificence of Jonathan Quick between the pipes and the stellar work of Drew Doughty, the Kings don't raise the banner next Saturday if they don't go Anze Kopitar-Mike Richards-Jarret Stoll down the middle.

And therein lies the rub for the Ducks, they've got the proverbial hole in the middle of the doughnut roster. It's hard to justify trading away your first line center when you don't have a capable No. 2, and the prospects in the system only project as marginal NHL centers. While the Toronto Maple Leafs are begging for a No. 1 center, their depth chart doesn't have the assets that makes sense for the Ducks to pull the trigger and release the pivot.

As painful as it might be, if the Ducks had to make a choice between the two, they're better served dealing Perry to a contender.

Not only will he bring back multiple assets, but he can surely fetch that elusive No. 2 center the Ducks have lacked since the departure of Andy McDonald.

Normally a deal for a star with an expiring contract would fetch a return below market value, but the 48-game season would give the Ducks a break if they put the "For Sale" out early. If Murray puts the word out that Perry is available, he could have upwards of 10 teams legitimately willing to ask what the bounty would be for his greatest asset.

Regardless of what move Murray thinks serves the greatest good, he must get an answer on both Perry and Getzlaf's intention by the end of the month. In turn, the players need to do the right thing and give the franchise the early opportunity to get a premium exchange if their intention is to self-pluck their feathers and fly away from Southern California.

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.




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