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Monday, October 2, 2006
Anaheim Ducks season preview

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STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

Perhaps no team has seen its expectations grow so dramatically from last season. That's what happens when you go to the Western Conference finals and then add the best defenseman in the game as Anaheim did in bringing in Chris Pronger shortly after the end of the season. Pronger and Scott Niedermayer give the Ducks the most dynamic 1-2 blue-line combination in the league. With solid goaltending and a nice blend of talented veterans and promising young forwards who already have a sense of what it takes to win, the Ducks look to be an imposing force for years to come. Now, the question is whether they can make the short but incredibly difficult jump from close to champion.

Offense: To land Pronger, GM Brian Burke had to swallow hard and part with Joffrey Lupul, who had 28 goals and has the potential to hit the 40-goal mark. Pronger will offset that loss of offensive production (he had 56 points) and there are a handful of youngsters who will be expected to step forward as Lupul did a season ago. Chris Kunitz, stolen from Atlanta via the waiver wire a year ago, had 19 goals playing for the most part on the team's top line with Andy McDonald and Teemu Selanne. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf were inseparable on and off the ice and it's not out of the question they could double their combined 27 goals. If there are questions, they surround the ability of Selanne, who led the team with 40 goals and 90 points, to replicate those numbers. Likewise, can McDonald approach the 85 points he scored as one of the biggest surprises of last season? Even if those totals drop, the Ducks have lots of depth to more than make up for any shortfalls from those two. Watch for winger Stanislav Chistov to show that he's matured after a self-imposed exile in Russia.

Defense: Barring an injury to either Pronger or Niedermayer, who ranked fourth and ninth, respectively, in average ice time, the pair could conceivably be on the ice for all but a few minutes of every game. That's a scary possibility for opposing coaches and forwards to contemplate and really makes discussion of the Ducks' "depth" along the blue line almost moot. Pronger showed during the playoffs that he has matured and was the best skater in the postseason bar none. Niedermayer, who struggled in the Western Conference finals against Edmonton, was the best defenseman over the last half of the season and should have won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman. They bring different styles to the ice: Niedermayer possessing better skating and puck handling skills and Pronger, at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, the more physically punishing of the two. After the dynamic duo, there is Francois Beauchemin, who was a revelation after coming over from Columbus in the Sergei Fedorov deal. Beauchemin went from being a healthy scratch in Columbus to a hard-hitting, hard-shooting No. 3 man along the Anaheim blue line. He finished with 36 points and his development will be interesting to track this season. With Vitaly Vishnevski and Ruslan Salei out of town, Joe DiPenta, Maxim Kondratiev and Sean O'Donnell round out the defensive corps.

Goaltending: The position provides a bit of a quandary for second-year coach Randy Carlyle and GM Burke. Ilya Bryzgalov enters the season as the No. 1 netminder based on his superlative play in the postseason (the rookie led the NHL with a 1.46 GAA and .944 save percentage in 11 games). But he is untested over the long haul and incumbent Jean-Sebastien Giguere was solid during the regular season with a 30-15-11 record as the Ducks finished with the seventh-best goals-against record. Giguere also has a big ($3.99 million) price tag, so moving him might not be as easy as it sounds. Plus, there's always the issue of selling off a piece the Ducks might yet need if they're to make good on many preseason predictions that they're Cup-bound.

Coaching: Randy Carlyle might not be warm and fuzzy, but the veteran defenseman made believers out of skeptics during his first NHL coaching assignment. Carlyle made it clear to Burke early on which players he thought fit and which he didn't. When veterans Petr Sykora and Fedorov were dealt, Carlyle put a lot of pressure on rookies Perry, Getzlaf and Kunitz and they responded with unusual maturity. Now, the trick will be in getting more out of a team that suddenly has the highest of expectations.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
4th This is the toughest division in hockey and it'll be a dogfight between two of the NHL's best teams, but the Ducks will fall a little short of the division crown in second in the Pacific Division, fourth in the Western Conference.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Up
Stock up (up and away). It's been a bit of a blur for the squad and its fans since the end of the lockout; new owners, new coach, new GM, a surprise visit to the conference finals, the surprise addition of the game's best defenseman. Attendance should jump dramatically with season tickets up about 20 percent over last season.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer give the team the best defensive duo in the league. In fantasy, and the two should feed off each other en route to potentially 70-point seasons for each. Plus, Pronger's strengths should pay dividends to the winner of the goaltending battle between Ilya Bryzgalov, last season's postseason standout, and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, a disappointment in recent seasons. The Ducks would prefer the kid to win, so take a look at Bryzgalov as a late-round sleeper. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Ducks:
1. Bobby Ryan, 19, RW, Owen Sound (OHL)
Statline: 59 GP, 31 G, 64 A, 44 PIM
2. Stanislav Chistov, 23, LW, Magnitogorsk
Statline: 47 GP, 11 G, 22 A, 95 PIM
3. Brendan Mikkelson, 19, D, Vancouver (WHL)
Statline: 22 GP, 2 G, 9 A, 41 PIM
4. Shane O'Brien, 23, D, Portland (AHL)
Statline: 77 GP, 8 G, 33 A, 287 PIM
5. Curtis Glencross, 23, C, Portland (AHL)
Statline: 41 GP, 15 G, 10 A, 85 PIM
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Anaheim Ducks
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record 43-27-12 (98 points)
Division Finished third in Pacific
Conference Finished sixth in West
Playoffs Lost 4-1 to Edmonton in West finals

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Samuel Pahlsson
The solid Pahlsson (5-foot-11, 212 pounds) was a big part of the Swedes' gold-medal effort in Torino last winter and he has emerged as a top two-way player, winning faceoffs and killing penalties. He is the kind of player who makes champions.
Winger: Bobby Ryan
The second overall pick in the 2005 draft, Ryan might not be quite ready for prime time yet with another year of junior available to him. But given the confidence Carlyle shows in youngsters who deserve it, Ryan might still earn a shot with the big club.
Defense: Chris Pronger
The man's a force. Plain and simple. Look for him to again eat up a ton of ice time per game.
Goalie: Ilya Bryzgalov
Now that he's the starter, how does the enigmatic (OK, that's a nice word for flaky) Bryzgalov handle the pressure?

Key Moves
When you get the best defenseman in the game, that's generally considered a key move; obtaining Pronger cost the Ducks a terrific young forward in Lupul and an unknown quantity in defenseman Ladislav Smid, but you get what you pay for. Chistov could be a wellspring of offense after coming back from Russia.

SportsNation
Rating the Ducks
The Anaheim Ducks finished sixth in the Western Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Ducks in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
Vote now, SportsNation!