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Before playing the Mighty Ducks last season, opposing coaches must have told their players, "Don't let Paul Kariya score. If he has an opportunity, flatten him. Drag him to the ice and sit on him if you have to—just don't let him score!"
With few other Anaheim scoring threats to be concerned about—and none close to the ultratalented left wing—teams clamped down on Kariya, and it worked. Three years after putting up 101 points, he had 57 in 2001-02; the Mighty Ducks ranked 29th in goals scored. Opponents didn't have to worry about breaking the rules to stop him either, because Anaheim converted only 11.5% of its power plays, the worst mark in the league.
As a result the Mighty Ducks (29-42-8-3) finished 25 points out of a playoff spot, and drastic changes were made. G.M. Pierre Gauthier was fired, coach Bryan Murray was moved up to that spot, and Murray tapped the hard-nosed coach of Anaheim's minor league affiliate in Cincinnati, Mike Babcock, 39, to succeed him. "He has the personality we need," says Murray, "the kind of personality that will bring enthusiasm and grit into our locker room."
Then Murray went to work on the roster, with his primary objective to surround Kariya with gifted offensive players. This year Kariya will likely start alongside 40-year-old center Adam Oates, a free-agent pickup who led the league in assists last year (64), and right wing Petr Sykora, who was acquired from the Devils and scored 81 points in 2000-01.
Oates will work his magic on the Ducks' power play, which will also benefit from the free-agent signing of offensive defenseman Fredrik Olausson. Just like that, a glaring weakness last season may become one of the team's strengths this year. "We have the talent to be Number 1 in the league," Kariya says of the power-play unit.
Thanks to goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who ranked fifth in the league in goals-against average (2.13) and save percentage (.920), the Ducks should stay in most games. An improved power play plus added support for Kariya will make the team even better. Says Kariya, "I can't remember being this excited going into a season in a long time."
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