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Saturday, May 19, 2007
Hockey's 'unwanted' players find home in Anaheim

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

ANAHEIM -- The front of the Honda Center might as well be festooned with a big sign that reads: "NHL Orphanage  All Players Welcome."

Undrafted, overlooked, underappreciated, unwanted -- the Anaheim Ducks have opened their doors to them all. And for every player like Andy McDonald, Chris Kunitz, Dustin Penner and Ryan Shannon who trudges through those doors, their worldly hockey possessions attached to a kerchief and a long stick, the more the other 29 NHL teams do their best to follow suit.

"Every team in the NHL is going after college free agents, including many that never did in the past. Everybody's copying us," Anaheim GM Brian Burke said in an interview.

This isn't a parlor trick. It's not using a Ouija board to find an NHL player in hockey's hinterlands. It's not guessing and hoping (no, that is the domain of the Chicago Blackhawks).

Andy McDonald
Despite his smaller frame, Andy McDonald plays a fearless style of hockey, especially in high-traffic areas.

No, this is as part of a clearly defined plan as any draft day war room might be. And this plan -- to commit time and resources to uncover top college players that for various reasons existed below the NHL radar -- has the Ducks on the verge of their second trip to the Stanley Cup finals in four NHL playoff years.

"It's not an exact science," Burke insisted. "We signed a lot of guys that didn't work out."

But when 110 regular-season points, two-thirds of your top line and a top rookie are the product of that plan, no wonder other NHL clubs are scrambling to replicate the process.

Penner, a 6-foot-4, 243-pound giant, recalls the first time he was approached by an agent about representing him in talks with NHL teams. He thought it was an elaborate prank being pulled by his college mates.

"I thought I was being punked by Ashton Kutcher," Penner recalled with a grin.

After failing to make the top Triple-A teams in his home province of Manitoba, Penner was forced to look at what life might be like without hockey. He thought about jobs he might take in his home town of Winkler and where he might buy a house. Then, he got a call from his cousin offering him a tryout with a junior college, Minot State University-Bottineau. Penner went and promptly broke his femur.

But after returning the following season, Penner ended up catching the eye of an assistant coach with the University of Maine. Penner was offered a scholarship and, after being red-shirted his first year, helped the Black Bears to the NCAA championship game in 2004.

Penner then started getting calls from agents and NHL scouts and team officials, including the Ducks' top college scout David McNab. When Penner signed his first NHL contract with the Ducks three years ago last week, the collegian who'd become adept at stretching $20 dollars, took a picture of the paycheck. He then took some friends out to dinner and picked up the check.

NHL analysts, including former general managers, say teams have to explore every avenue to find quality players that can fit into the economic structure under the new salary cap era. It's not enough to draft well because draftees often take two-to-five years to develop. It's not enough to sign free agents because the cap doesn't allow for overexposure to the free-agent market. Instead, teams must find players who can contribute immediately -- and cheaply. Those same analysts and former managers say the Ducks have become the model for such player development.

The contributions of Kunitz, McDonald, Penner, Francois Beauchemin and even Shannon speak for themselves. This season, those five players cost the Ducks a little more than $5.7 million combined. By comparison, Toronto paid center Mats Sundin $7.6 million and contributed two fewer points (76) than McDonald.

Without those players, Burke doesn't have the financial wherewithal to go out and acquire Chris Pronger, who was owed $25 million on his contract. Without those players, the Ducks aren't two wins away from the Stanley Cup finals.

McDonald, a native of Strathroy, Ontario, was disappointed not to have been taken in the major junior draft as a teen. So, he focused on getting an education. At Colgate, his off-ice goals were more ambitious -- get a degree and maybe play in Europe or the AHL.

"After that [the junior draft], I was just happy to go to school," McDonald said this week.

Colgate wasn't much of a hockey factory. McDonald recalls one player being drafted during his time there and it was a big deal for everyone in the program. But toward the end of his college career, he blossomed, piling up 104 points over his last two seasons.

The phone started to ring.

"It was kind of overwhelming," McDonald recalled. "I was pretty surprised and excited at the same time."

The Ducks have been successful because they've been doing this for years. As far back as 2000, the Ducks began looking under the hockey rocks for talent because they couldn't afford to compete with big-market teams for free agents. They began identifying players they believed could play in the NHL, players that were a little older, a little more mature, players like McDonald and Kunitz.

"Andy McDonald was a terrific player. I thought he was the best player in the country," McNab recalled.

But because he was small and hadn't been on people's radar, he became available and the Ducks were willing to pay to make sure he was theirs.

The process is different from traditional player development. Top draft prospects have dozens of eyes watching them leading up to the draft. There are stories written about them. They have a profile. Their stock rises and falls like publicly traded stock. But for players the Ducks have targeted, the less said the better.

"In this situation, you're trying to keep it a secret because you don't want a lot of attention. You're doing a lot of things as quietly as possible," McNab said.

At the heart of the matter is a team has to trust the judgment of its own people. It's called confidence and it's not for the faint of heart, not when there are millions of dollars on the line.

"You have to make the decision by yourself," McNab said. "We just really did our homework. We go and see them all. We don't just stumble on them."

Their successes have made the job harder because other teams are now poring over the same hockey ground, looking for their own Kunitz and McDonald.

Although he is reluctant to discuss the specifics of the change, Burke said the Ducks have made adjustments to try and stay ahead of the curve. Both Burke and McNab believe there is something that unites these players in terms of their approach to the game. Top draft prospects have been nurtured and have a belief in their talents instilled in them at an early age. Players like Kunitz and McDonald have to tap into another wellspring of motivation.

"They're a little more hungry," said Burke, who has a soft spot for such players never having been drafted himself. "They have to scratch a little harder. They're not noticed, so they have to work a little harder."

Shannon, a native of Darien, Conn. who generously listed at 5-foot-9, is in the same mold. He suggested that perhaps not being drafted or pursued by agents at an early age helped sustain the hockey dream when it might otherwise have been crushed.

"I had a veil over my eye whenever I stepped on the ice," Shannon said. "I did feel like it was a long shot for me. The NHL was a lifelong dream."

A dream that has been realized no matter which path was followed.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.