What will Ducks look like after road trip? It's in their hands now

February, 20, 2009
There's so much going on right now on the ice and in the boardrooms, it's a great time of year in the NHL.

Off the ice, GMs are dialing one another up and setting the groundwork for the March 4 trade deadline. Some will try to act beforehand to beat out the competition, as Montreal did Monday with defenseman Mathieu Schneider. In the meantime, scouts crowd into press boxes with their assignments.

On the ice, teams are telling their GMs whether to be buyers or sellers by either staying in the race or falling out of it over the next 12 days before the deadline.

That brings us to the Anaheim Ducks, a club that could spin one of the most fascinating tales in hockey over the next two weeks, a team one point out of a playoff spot Friday morning with nearly half its roster headed for free agency.

They begin a six-game road trip Friday night in Detroit, a critical juncture in their season that will very much determine what Ducks GM Bob Murray does before the trade deadline.

"Obviously, we haven't had the success that we were anticipating, or that's required," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle told ESPN.com on Thursday night from Detroit. "It's as simple as that. For whatever reason, we're in the situation we're in. "This road trip is basically going to determine whether we are buyers or sellers."

When Murray replaced the Toronto-bound Brian Burke as Ducks GM in November, he addressed the players and told them their performance would dictate what would happen going forward in terms of contract extensions or trades. Their inconsistent play and ultimate dip in the standings is pushing Murray perilously close to the latter.

The road trip, which also stops in Columbus, Buffalo, Boston, Dallas and Chicago (all playoff teams), concludes March 3, the eve of the trade deadline. By the time the Ducks next play at home, March 6, who knows what the team will look like.

If the team looks the same, that means they've had a great trip and they're in a playoff spot. If the trip has been a disaster, the charter flight home might have a few empty seats. Much of the media speculation over the past few weeks has centered on star defenseman Chris Pronger, but captain and fellow star blueliner Scott Niedermayer is the one slated for unrestricted free agency. Pronger has another year on his deal, and while it's true other NHL teams have called and inquired about him, that shouldn't be confused with Murray shopping him.

But what of Niedermayer? He doesn't have a no-trade clause in his contract, so aside from the obvious respect the front office has for the man who helped bring in the team's only NHL championship, the Ducks can certainly move him wherever they want. The New Jersey Devils have already been linked to Niedermayer, which should surprise no one who knows GM Lou Lamoriello and how devastated he was when the longtime Devil jumped ship after the lockout. (At the time, in August 2005, Lamoriello offered Niedermayer $7.8 million a year, but Scott took the $6.75 million-a-year deal from Anaheim because he wanted to play with his brother, Rob.)

Should Niedermayer go on the market closer to March 4, the Devils would have lots of company in suitors. One team that just makes sense is the Vancouver Canucks. They've been on the lookout for a defenseman, GM Mike Gillis has creatively kept some room under the salary cap even after the Mats Sundin signing for one more significant addition, and the move would bring Niedermayer back home to his native province of British Columbia. As an added bonus, maybe he signs a one-year extension after the season and plays in the Olympics in front of friends and family.

Truth be told, Niedermayer has not even come close to deciding whether he'll play another season, his agent, Kevin Epp of Titan Sports Management, told ESPN.com on Thursday.

Pronger, meanwhile, was so annoyed by the trade gossip originating north of the border that he wrote a blog on his own Web site (www.chrispronger.com) last week, telling Ducks fans he hasn't asked for a trade and didn't want to leave Anaheim.

"In my opinion i [sic] believe the rumors are part of an overzealous group of reporters who are putting the Ducks in the 'sellers' category at the trade deadline and trying to drum up fan interest in there [sic] stories and TV shows," Pronger wrote. "They put us, the Ducks, in this category because we have not played up to expectations thus far. With 25 games to go [now 23] and around 10 [now six] left before the deadline we hope to put these rumors to rest with the way we play the rest of the season and on into the playoffs."

It's telling that even a veteran like Pronger would get a little rattled by all the trade rumors. But that's the way it is when your team is ninth in the West with the trade deadline approaching. All the players are a little wired right now.

"It's all part of the life of a pro athlete," Carlyle said. "And it's the life of an NHL player that has become more of an issue because of the races that are created and the amount of moves that are done at the trade deadline.

"We can't hide from the fact that we've created this situation and we have to take responsibility for it."

Amen, Randy. It's time to win, baby, win. Or else.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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