Part way through the 2008-2009 season, the Anaheim Ducks looked like they weren't even going to make the playoffs. Then, by the time the postseason rolled around, they were as good as any team in the hunt for the Stanley Cup.
Off-Season Game Plan examines what could be an eventful summer in Anaheim, one that will depend a lot on the decision of Scott Niedermayer.
Niedermayer, 35, is an unrestricted free agent and could retire, or seek out another team, though it would seem that, if he's going to play, Anaheim would be the most logical choice.
For all of his Hall of Fame credentials, Niedermayer's game has slipped some since his first dalliance with retirement, with last season's minus-8 rating the worst of his illustrious career. Even so, Niedermayer was a workhorse, playing nearly 27 minutes per game, ranking third in the league behind teammate Chris Pronger (by one second per game) and Florida's Jay Bouwmeester.
That, along with a strong playoff performance, would seem to indicate that there's still some game left in Niedermayer and that's good for the Ducks, since Niedermayer's departure could also pave the way for Teemu Selanne to pack it in.
"He's everything to this group, and I'm going to have to see where he goes before I decide where I go," Bob Murray told reporters following the season.
If Niedermayer does return, that could make Pronger, entering the final year of his contract, expendable and therein lies the potential for significant change in Anaheim this summer.
In addition to any moves needed to solidify the defence, the Ducks have to set their sights on some secondary scoring, in the hopes of easing the pressure on their ultra-talented first line.
The good news for GM Bob Murray is that he has inherited a strong team, continued to make savvy moves and now may be a deal or two away from having another Cup contender next season.
Bob Murray/Randy Carlyle
Top Prospects: Matt Beleskey (11-24-35, minus-7 in 58 GP; Iowa-AHL), Nicolas Deschamps (24-41-65, minus-8 in 65 GP; Chicoutimi-QMJHL), Brandon McMillan (14-35-49, plus-23 in 70 GP; Kelowna-WHL), Logan MacMillan (9-22-31, minus-5 in 43 GP; Halifax, Rimouski-QMJHL)
Corey Perry has improved every year he's been in the league. He has soft hands, plays on the edge and goes to the net as well as anyone. On top of all that, his game complements that of Ryan Getzlaf so well.
Getzlaf is an elite playmaker with size, toughness and some of the sweetest hands in the game. It's nitpicking, since he's coming off a 91-point season, but Getzlaf has the talent to dominate even more than he has over the past couple of seasons.
As if it's not enough for the Ducks to have two big forwards with outstanding skills, they added Bobby Ryan to the mix last season and Ryan had an exceptional rookie season, scoring highlight-reel goals and looking every bit like a future star. Assuming he can avoid a sophomore slump, Ryan should be more productive as he can handle at least a couple more minutes of ice time per game.
Though 38-year-old Teemu Selanne has lost a step, he's still a valuable power play performer (scoring 28 of his 54 points with the man advantage) and, with the right linemates, he can help take some pressure off the young guns.
Andrew Ebbett earned his place on the second line. He's an undersized perimeter player with strong setup skills who has always managed to put up points. If Ebbett can build on his rookie season, he would certainly provide good value.
It's taken some time for Drew Miller to work his way into the Ducks lineup, playing 53 games over the last two seasons, but his strong finish to 2008-2009 could give him a leg up in his efforts to play a full NHL season as a checking winger with enough offensive ability to have put up 74 points in 84 AHL games over the last couple of seasons.
Ryan Carter is still trying to earn an everyday spot in the lineup and, especially after a strong playoff performance, should be in line for a regular checking role next season.
Heavyweight slugger George Parros doesn't see a lot of ice, but his game did make some progress last season, as he finished with career highs in goals (5), points (10) and plus-minus (plus-8). By no means is he rocketing up the depth chart, but it doesn't hurt when a team can trust its enforcer to play a sound, if limited, game.
Petteri Nokelainen has never been a big scorer, as evidenced by his 21 points in 122 career games, but he played well after coming to the Ducks from Boston and he figures to get a shot anchoring one of the checking lines.
Struggling to secure a role as a top-six forward, where he seemingly needs to be if he's going to be effective, Erik Christensen has terrific hands, yet defensive shortcomings have prevented him from being entrusted with a greater role.
In the new mold of agitating forwards, who don't produce much, Mike Brown is a decent fit on the fourth line, banging bodies, dropping the gloves if necessary and scoring as a last resort.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Ducks need to dip into free agency to round out the lines, as opposed to acquiring talent in possible blockbuster trades, they will need another scorer for the second line. Some names that might be of interest for that role could include Mike Cammalleri, Alex Kovalev, Nik Antropov or perhaps Saku Koivu, to play alongside countryman Teemu Selanne for a year.
In the search for a reliable veteran checking forward, the Ducks could look in several directions, including the likes of John Madden, Chad LaRose or Manny Malhotra, among many others.
Top Prospects: Jake Gardiner (3-18-21, plus-4 in 39 GP; Wisconsin-WCHA), Mark Mitera (1-2-3, plus-3 in 8 GP; Michigan-CCHA), Brian Salcido (10-33-43, minus-22 in 76 GP; Iowa-AHL), Steven Kampfer (1-12-13, plus-17 in 25 GP; Michigan-CCHA)
Even as he's getting older, Chris Pronger possesses a rare combination of size, skill and nastiness. He's not a Norris Trophy challenger anymore, but he's still a top-tier defenceman. Going into the final year of his contract, Pronger could end up as a big trading chip this summer, depending on the status of Scott Niedermayer.
Coming off foot surgery, Ryan Whitney struggled early in the season with Pittsburgh, but started to turn his game around in Anaheim. Whitney doesn't use his size as much as he could, but his vision and puck skills make him a valuable contributor from the blueline.
Tough guy Sheldon Brookbank didn't play a lot, but he was solid in limited minutes. He's inexpensive depth and plays the hard-nosed style that befits the Ducks.
Brendan Mikkelson got his feet wet at the NHL level, playing 34 games. If his game develops, he could earn a regular spot, but he's still at the stage of having to battle for his place in the lineup.
Adding James Wisniewski at the trade deadline was a stroke of genius, as he brings puckhandling, toughness and the ability to play in any situation. With potential upheaval on the Ducks blueline, Wisniewski could take on a bigger role next season and he's good enough to handle the responsbility.
Brett Festerling surprised by earning a spot for half of the season and he was a steady, stay-at-home defenceman when he did play. He will battle for playing time with Brookbank and Mikkelson.
The look of the defence will obviously be determined by free agency, as Scott Niedermayer could retire (again) and Francois Beauchemin could be difficult to retain. At the very least, adding another top four defenceman would make sense.
Mike Komisarek and Mattias Ohlund would hold some appeal, as might Nick Boynton, Paul Mara or a shot-blocker like Greg Zanon.
Top Prospect: Mattias Modig (2.25 GAA, .922 SVPCT, 4 SO in 40 GP; Lulea-SEL)
Jonas Hiller emerged as a quality starter in his second NHL season, taking the reins from Jean-Sebastien Giguere down the stretch and into the playoffs where he was even better. The natural progression would be for the 27-year-old Hiller to assume the starting job next season.
For that to happen, the Ducks would have to move Giguere, despite his no-trade clause. It was a completely forgettable season for Giguere, his worst in Anaheim. The 32-year-old has done enough in his career to warrant another chance to start, but it may not necessarily be ahead of Hiller with the Ducks.
15th - Simon Despres, Peter Holland, Jacob Josefson.
The Ducks have approximately $38.4-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top six forward, one top nine forward, one top four defenceman, another defenceman
What I said the Ducks needed last year: One top six forward
Who did they add? Bobby Ryan, Brendan Morrison
Chris Pronger, Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca