A talented team that ended up coming short of the playoffs, the Anaheim Ducks will have to put their summer plans on hold while they wait for decisions from two veterans.
Since playing just 48 games after a failed first attempt at retirement in 2007-2008, Niedermayer has played in 162 of 164 regular season games over the last two years and, while his play has slipped, the 36-year-old remains a workhorse, so if he does decide to return next season, that will ease the Ducks' concerns heading into next season.
"The back end has to improve," GM Bob Murray told the Orange County Register at season's end. "To what extent depends on what Scotty does. But how you can do it? There are options."
Sure, the Ducks can still add more proven veterans to the back end, but it's a competitive advantage if a team can get a top-flight player to keep playing, potentially at a price that is discounted somewhat because the player is happier in his current location than going elsewhere to maximize his salary.
This principle is surely in effect with 39-year-old Selanne, who earned a modest $2-million last season, while scoring 27 goals in 54 games.
Selanne acknowledged to the Los Angeles Times that he thought his injury-marred season might be the last of his Hall of Fame career, "Even two months ago, with the injuries, I thought the hockey gods were telling me, 'It's time,' but the last two months have been so much fun."
If Selanne and Niedermayer are in the fold next season, the Ducks should have the personnel to be a playoff team; perhaps in need of some tweaking on the defensive end, but more than skilled enough.
The Ducks have an enviable crop of young talent, led by Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, so they should be able to fit in the necessary role players to quickly erase the memory of the franchise's first post-lockout non-playoff team.
On the other hand, if Niedermayer and Selanne elect to call it quits, that could shift the Ducks to a more dramatic rebuilding phase; still anchored around their core of young talent, but more focused on young players in the organization and what they can provide into the future.
Until those decisions are made, however, the Ducks have to wait.
Bob Murray/Randy Carlyle
|Player||Rating||Class||'09-'10 Cap Hit|
Though an ankle injury slowed him and contributed to his playing just 66 games, Ryan Getzlaf scored better than a point-per-game for the third straight season. Getzlaf offers an extremely rare combination of size, nastiness and offensive vision, making him one of the game's elite centres.
Getzlaf could improve his effort without the puck to become an even more complete player, but he's a horse to which the Ducks can feel confident hitching their wagon.
Getzlaf's tag-team partner, Corey Perry, has seen his point and penalty minute totals rise each year he's been in the league, topping out at 76 points and 111 penalty minutes last season. Few wingers have Perry's combination of puck skills and abrasive style.
Back troubles limited Joffrey Lupul, which makes it easy to forget that the 26-year-old can still put the puck in the net. He scored ten goals in 23 games last season and is a three-time 20-goal scorer, which is certainly enough credentials to handle a second-line scoring role.
Few teams would have been willing to take on Jason Blake's contract, given his declining play, but he'll be expected to handle a secondary scoring role with the Ducks. His 40-goal season of 2006-2007 was an aberration, but Blake has surpassed 20 goals in four other seasons, so Anaheim can hope he'll provide that kind of offence.
Dan Sexton started his NHL career with a flourish, scoring seven points in his first six games, before eventually fading into a depth role. The 23-year-old has offensive ability, but may not have a wing spot available on one of the top two lines, so he'll have to earn his opportunities.
Matt Beleskey had some good moments as a rookie, scoring 11 goals in 60 games and getting some time on a line with Getzlaf and Perry, but his minus-10 rating reveals further development is necessary for the hard-working winger to make a more positive impact.
Veteran centre Todd Marchant still gets tough defensive match-ups, but gets overmatched in that role; he could use more support to help protect him so that he doesn't have a repeat of last season's minus-16 rating.
Scrappy winger Mike Brown managed only seven points in 75 games, but he plays a hard game on the fourth line, fighting 14 times and ranking second among Ducks forwards in hits per minute, while playing only 8:21 per game.
Ideally, Ryan Carter might be able to step up into a primary checking role, but the 26-yera-old hasn't played more than 48 games in any of his three NHL seasons, so he still needs to prove he can be a regular in the lineup.
George Parros is still an active enforcer, dropping the gloves 20 times, but the 30-year-old's effectiveness seems to be decreasing and that could help explain why he played only 57 games last season. He can play in spot duty on the fourth line and can still tangle with heavyweights, so he has a role, however minimal.
25-year-old Troy Bodie adds more muscle to the Ducks lineup. He's a better all-around player than a typical enforcer, yet not as accomplished as a pugilist, so Bodie's fit depends on circumstances.
There won't be many restricted free agents as sought after as Bobby Ryan, so the Ducks will want to get him signed up long-term sooner rather than later.
He's scored 66 goals over the last two seasons and the 23-year-old is just scratching the surface of his vast potential. If the Ducks don't secure a second-line centre, that role could fall to Ryan, who showed well in a limited trial there late in the season.
A fresh start in Anaheim seemed to improve Kyle Chipchura's career prospects as he was much more effective in a checking role than he had been when he was with Montreal.
Assuming that Sexton couldn't slide into a centre job, the Ducks may need someone to dish the puck on their second line, whether that involves bringing back Saku Koivu or looking outside the organization for someone else. Other free agents that may be shorter-term fixes, like Matt Cullen or perhaps Olli Jokinen, might be able to fill that void.
Certainly, if Teemu Selanne decides he's willing to return for another season, the Ducks will have to find a way to make room for him, since those goals (27 in 54 games last season) aren't easily replaced.
|Player||Rating||Class||'09-'10 Cap Hit|
If Scott Niedermayer doesn't return, the Ducks at least have another mobile puck-moving defenceman available to handle big minutes. Lubomir Visnovsky had 13 points in 16 games with the Ducks after coming over in a trade from Edmonton, and has topped 40 points in four of the last five seasons.
Brett Festerling didn't get a lot of playing time in the 42 games he did play, but was serviceable in his role. In 82 games, through two NHL seasons, Festerling has eight assists and a plus-6 rating, so he's not aiming for anything but safe.
It hasn't been the smoothest path for Steve Eminger, the 2002 first-rounder who is with his fifth team in the last three seasons, but in the last 24 games (from February 1), Eminger had ten points, a plus-6 rating and played between 22 and 23 minutes a night.
If he can build on that finish and handle a top-four role next season, that would be a major development and ease some of the pressure on the Ducks blueline.
Acquired from the Atlanta Thrashers at the deadline, Nathan Oystrick spent most of the season in the American Hockey League after he played 53 games with Atlanta in 2008-2009. He's tough and capable of fulfilling the seventh defenceman role if need be.
As it seems to be every year now, the fate of the franchise is tied to Scott Niedermayer's decision to return. The 36-year-old played major minutes (26:30) and still put up 48 points, including 27 on the power play, yet he also was a career-low minus-9, making it fair to wonder if the Ducks are putting Niedermayer in the best position to succeed.
If he decides to come back, the Ducks will find a way to fit Niedermayer in because top-pair defencemen don't just grow on trees, but it's become apparent that the team surrounding Niedermayer needs to be strong if he's going to be effective.
James Wisniewski may have gained notoriety for his illegal hit on Brent Seabrook late in the year, but that obscured his true value as a defenceman who can handle the puck, play tough and log more than 24 minutes per game. Along with Ryan, Wisniewski is a restricted free agent that has to be a priority signing for the Ducks, or if his price tag climbs too high, he becomes a big trade chip.
Assuming that Niedermayer doesn't return, the Ducks would need another top-four defenceman to eat up minutes. Any of Dan Hamhuis, Anton Volchenkov, Zbynek Michalek, Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman or Andy Sutton would all be serviceable additions that would improve the Ducks defensive play.
Jonas Hiller has earned the Ducks' starting job, posting a .920 save percentage through his first three seasons and now that Jean-Sebastien Giguere is in Toronto, there is a crystal clear definition of Hiller's role as the No. 1 guy between the pipes.
Curtis McElhinney wasn't expected to play quite so much when he was acquired from Calgary at the deadline, but Hiller ran into some injury troubles late in the year and McElhinney played well (.917 save percentage) in his 10 appearances.
|Luca Sbisa||D||Portland (WHL)||4-14-18,even, 29 GP|
|Peter Holland||C||Guelph (OHL)||30-49-79,-7, 59 GP|
|Nicolas Deschamps||C||Moncton (QMJHL)||39-57-96,+21, 64 GP|
|Nick Bonino||C||Boston University (HE)||11-27-38,+18, 33 GP|
|Mark Mitera||D||Abbotsford (AHL)||1-9-10,even, 32 GP|
|Brandon McMillan||LW||Kelowna (WHL)||25-42-67,+11, 55 GP|
|Jake Newton||D||Northeastern (HE)||9-13-22,-3, 34 GP|
|Matt Clark||D||Brampton (OHL)||7-16-23,+1, 66 GP|
|Rob Bordson||LW||Minnesota-Duluth (WCHA)||12-28-40,-2, 40 GP|
|MacGregor Sharp||C||San Antonio (AHL)||9-9-18,-2, 40 GP|
20-year-old Luca Sbisa has already played 47 NHL games over the last two seasons, and hasn't looked out of place, but has still been returned to the Western Hockey League. It just may take some time before he develops into a legitimate top-four option.
Peter Holland is a skilled centre with size who, despite a slow start last season, has improved steadily throughout his junior career. It's possible that Holland could be the one to step into the Ducks' vacancy down the middle, but it's more likely that will come a year or two down the road.
Getting traded to Moncton helped Nicolas Deschamps' offensive game take off in his third season, scoring 21 goals and 52 points in 33 games with the Wildcats to finish the year with 96 points. With some time in the AHL, Deschamps figures to compete for a job in Anaheim in the not-too-distant future.
Signed out of Boston University after a stellar junior season, Nick Bonino played nine games late in the year with the Ducks (registering two points) and the 22-year-old could be closer to winning a spot in Anaheim.
A first-round pick in 2006, Mark Mitera has taken a rocky road, from his knee injury during his senior year at Michgian to splitting time between the ECHL and two AHL teams as the Ducks didn't have their own AHL affiliate last year that they could count on to develop prospects.
Mitera is 22, but could use a steady turn in the AHL next season to get established and prove that he's ready for a chance in the NHL.
A third-round pick in 2008, Brandon McMillan hasn't signed yet with the Ducks, but figures to be in the plans as the winger continues to improve his offensive production.
SoCal native Jake Newton has good size for a defenceman, doesn't use it enough, but is gifted offensively and was signed out of Northeastern after an impressive freshman season. His offensive potential, to say nothing of local ties, makes him an intriguing prospect.
Sturdy defenceman Matt Clark provides a different type of game than Newton; safer, more reliable and tougher. It's possible that Clark could challenge for a spot in Anaheim quickly, but might be better off earning his stripes in the AHL first.
Signed out of Minnesota-Duluth after a shocking junior season (40 points in 40 games after seven points in 42 games in his first two years), 21-year-old Rob Bordson will get a chance to prove in the AHL that he's a late bloomer.
MacGregor Sharp scored 50 points in his last year at Minnesota-Duluth before bouncing around last season, playing in the ECHL, with two AHL teams and even eight games with the Ducks. The 24-year-old doesn't have a lot of time to waste, so he could use a steady AHL season to show what he has to offer.
The Ducks also have some other long-range prospects, including University of Wisconsin defencemen Jake Gardiner and Justin Schultz, Notre Dame forward Kyle Palmieri, Russian goaltender Igor Bobkov and tiny Finnish blueliner Sami Vatanen.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Ducks have approximately $36.8M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 17 players.
Needs: One top six forward, one top four defenceman, one additional defenceman.
What I said the Ducks needed last year: One top six forward, one top nine forward, one top four defenceman, another defenceman.
Who did they add? Saku Koivu, Nick Boynton.