Saturday, December 08, 2007

Mighty Ducks IV: The Return of the Scott

Scott Niedermayer's recent return should elevate the Anaheim Ducks back to their former levels of might. Even without him, they're still a solid team that has put up 32 points thus far, good enough for seventh place in a jam-packed Western Conference where they're only two points out of second. With him, they have most of the pieces that led them to last year's Stanley Cup championship. It's uncertain whether Teemu Selanne will follow Niedermayer's example and return for the remainder of the season, but the Ducks' younger forwards have done a nice job of filling the void, with Getzlaf, Perry, and Kunitz all recording over 10 goals so far.
Anaheim's had its problems so far, though. One of the most prominent is the absence of scoring depth, as no one except the three previously mentioned forwards has more than four goals and the Ducks have only averaged an anemic 2.35 goals per game, 25th-best in the league. They also haven't been amazing defensively, allowing a 12th-best 2.70 goals per game. Special teams have also been a problem, as their power play is 24th-best and their penalty kill is 25th-best. Despite all these discouraging statistics, they've still found a way to win games, particularly at home where they're 9-4-3. Many have counted them out already, but they still retain most of the core that lifted the Cup last year: now that Niedermayer has returned, the most significant departures are Dustin Penner (who is doing little to justify his gargantuan pay in Edmonton) and Selanne. They've also added two capable veterans in Todd Bertuzzi and Mathieu Schneider.
Niedermayer's return has been compared to that of Roger Clemens, who came back midway through the year with the Yankees and was largely ineffectual. There are major differences, though. Clemens was already far past his prime, while Niedermayer's still at the top of his game. It may take a little while for the rust to wear off, but Niedermayer showed last year that he's still one of the greats: he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and was a finalist for the Norris Trophy as best defenceman. Once he's back on form, he should be able to turn the Ducks into a powerful contender again.
However, there is still one problem to face: that of the salary cap. Basically, the Ducks are fine for this season even with Niedermayer's contract, but are about $1 million over next season's cap. Greg Ballentine gives a great explanation of the details here. It will be interesting to see what GM Brian Burke does to clear sufficient cap space for next season so Niedermayer can return to the roster, but according to what Burke told the Globe and Mail's Eric Duhatschek, he doesn't think it will pose much of a problem.
"We have an offer," he said. "I could hang up this phone and fix this right away. We're trying to make the best hockey deal we can make. We're not in a bind at all. Of the 29 teams — we don't talk to Edmonton - so of the 28 other teams, there's plenty of interest in making this predicament go away."
Hopefully, Burke won't have to give up too much to fix his cap problems. Some, including Duhatschek, have suggested trading Schneider, but he's been one of their best players thus far, and a top-four defence lineup of Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Francis Beauchemin, and Schneider would be the most fearsome in the league. It would be much better for the Ducks if Burke was able to move Todd Marchant instead, who is paid far too much for his five points thus far and primarily fourth-line role. It will be interesting to watch and see what happens here, but my gut feeling is that Niedermayer is just the catalyst needed to catapult the Ducks back to the echelons of the league's elite, and maybe even enough to give them another Cup.

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