By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
Not even the sunny weather in Southern California could cheer up the difficult year the Anaheim Mighty Ducks had last season. The Ducks finished their disastrous 2001-02 season with just 69 points, tied with the lowly Nashville Predators and four points behind the two-year-old Minnesota Wild.
"When you are 25 points out, 'better' isn't good enough," new head coach Mike Babcock said. "You have to be a lot better and that's the big concern. I think we can be drastically better just because some of the things we've done in the past were so poor. So now it's a big change for us. In the last two years, we've been out of it after 20 games. And our key for training camp this year is we have to earn confidence so we can stay in the hunt and allow ourselves time to grow into a competitive team."
Sweeping changes were made this offseason, signing free agent veteran center Adam Oates from Philadelphia, bringing veteran defenseman Fredrik Olausson back to Anaheim after a one-year stopover in Detroit, and trading for right wing Petr Sykora, who had 81 points for the Devils just two seasons ago. Gone are puck-moving defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky, the trade bait used to lure Sykora from New Jersey, underachieving winger Jeff Friesen (also to Jersey) and backup goalie Steve Shields (dealt to Boston).
The Ducks expect to have enough depth on the blueline to replace Tverdovsky, and Sykora will more than replace Friesen on one of the top two lines. Babcock is also expected to give the team a boost with his intense, positive attitude. But unless a Disney script doctor can write a fairytale ending into the script, Anaheim looks destined to miss the postseason for the fourth consecutive season.
Kariya scored 32 goals and had 25 assists last season, decent numbers for most players, but subpar when there are seven zeroes after the one on his paycheck. Yes, at $10 million per season, the Ducks expect more from him. With offensive reinforcements on the scene in the form of Oates and Sykora, Kariya could threaten the 50-goal mark if he stays healthy. Playing with a super-creative center like Oates will be a blessing for the sharp-shooting Kariya, who will find the puck on his tape more often than not, and will have to look alive for Oates' crafty dishes when he doesn't expect them.
"Paul is so professional in his approach," Babcock said. "The thing I really like is that he seems to be a lot looser, at least relative to what I've heard in the past, sharing himself more with his teammates. And I think that is a big part of being a superstar, because your job is to make people better. He seems to be excited, and there is nothing like a player excited. He's just so humble, it's absolutely embarrassing almost, but Paul is just a quality, quality man."
The past four seasons, Kariya has slumped from 101 to 86 to 67 to 57 points. Anaheim needs him to again become a point-per-game player in order to get its money's worth on a $10 million investment.
Power play -- With Steve Rucchin dinged up and missing significant time for the second consecutive season, the Ducks' power play was pretty much Paul Kariya and four other guys. Opponents could leave a spy on Kariya, keeping one defender to shadow him wherever he roamed, if they so chose. But Kariya still managed to rack up 11 goals and 14 assists with the man advantage.
Anaheim converted on just 11.5 percent of its power plays, about half of the success rate of cross-town rivals and league-leading Los Angeles (20.6). Outside of Kariya, the rest of the team scored just 32 goals and had 70 assists on the power play.
The additions of Oates, Olausson and Sykora will aid extra-man situations considerably. Oates' pinpoint passing will draw defenders away from Kariya and free him up for his weakside one-timer, one of the best in the business. Olausson's big blast from the point will help create rebound opportunities, while Sykora's quick shot will beef up either the top unit along with Kariya and Oates, or perhaps a second unit with players like Steve Rucchin, Mike Leclerc or Andy McDonald.
"Obviously we think our power play really has to improve and we've acquired people to do it," Babcock said. "The big thing when you look at Oates and Olausson, right away you see leadership and experience. And when you have a young bunch of guys, who are often wound tight, older guys who have been around a long time and know how to play the game can loosen you up and lead in a big way. The other thing they both have is great decision making and intelligence that allows your power play to be a lot better."
Is Jean-Sebastien Giguere the most underrated player in the league?
It sure would be hard to argue against him, looking at the numbers.
One of the ways to examine numbers of a player on a bad team is to compare their stats to their backup's stats to see if the quality of play suffered when the starter was rested. Giguere posted a 20-25-6 record with 2.07 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 2001-02. His backup, Steve Shields, finished 9-20-2 with a 2.53 GAA and a .907 save pct. So there was a definite dropoff in the quality of net play when Giguere was on the bench. Shields' numbers are about what one would expect playing behind a bad team, which Anaheim was last season. But Giguere's number don't look like he played for a bad team (other than the sub-.500 winning percentage), making his one-man gang effort seem all the more impressive.
"The thing about him is that he demands a lot out of himself and accepts nothing but the best," Babcock said. "And he really struggled for a few years at the start of his pro career, but he was expected to be a big-time 'tender and he is now. And he's just going to get better. He's one of the best young goalies in the game. You don't have top-five stats when your team missed the playoffs by 25 points if you're not good."
The Ducks played it very smart and eased Giguere into the No. 1 job last season, giving him 50 starts and Shields 31. With youngsters Ilya Bryzgalov and Jean-Francois Damphousse battling for the backup job, Anaheim could play Giguere in 60 games. He looks like a future Vezina Trophy contender, but his talent has been a relative secret playing on such a losing team. If the Ducks make a big jump in the standings, Giguere won't be quite so anonymous, and is capable of having a huge breakout season like last year's Hart and Vezina winner (Jose Theodore) did.
The Ducks are already loaded with small, skilled forwards, and another one is on the way very soon. Chistov was thought to be the most skilled player in the 2001 draft (on par with top pick and 2001-02 Calder Trophy runner-up Ilya Kovalchuk), but his diminutive size scared off some of the top teams.
"He's a high-end skill guy," Babcock said. "He knows where the puck is going and the puck tends to follow him around. He's very creative, but he still has to learn the game over here and learn to be a professional with his work habits, eating habits and his off-ice habits. He has to come to the rink every day ready to work. So those are the challenges for him. There's no question he has NHL skill, but NHL skill isn't enough."
Scouts have compared him to a more aggressive Alexander Mogilny or a Sergei Samsonov with better scoring ability. Chistov could make the Ducks with an impressive preseason, but more realistically he will start the season with Cincinnati of the AHL and be called upon as an injury replacement. But odds are that once Chistov makes it to Anaheim, he will never leave, as he projects to be a top-line player with All-Star potential for years to come.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for CNNSI.com.