Friday December 7th, 2007

That had to feel good for Bryan Burke.

After months of toeing the line and carefully guarding his words, the man most inclined to speak his mind finally was free to do so, courtesy of Scott Niedermayer's decision to return to the ice with the Anaheim Ducks.

Welcome back, Scotty. But don't ever pull that kind of stunt again.

Niedermayer's long walk in the woods finally ended on Wednesday when he committed to returning to a team that scarcely resembles the one he last saw while carrying the Stanley Cup on June 6.

Last season, the Ducks were the only NHL team to rank in the top five in both power play (third) and penalty kill (fifth). Absent the services of Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne (league-leading 25 power play goals), the Ducks' special teams have taken on water. Both are rated in the bottom third of the league this time around, which goes a long way toward explaining their tepid 13-12-4 start.

But those are just symptoms of larger problems. Certainly some of the team's struggles can be written off as a bout with the old Cup hangover. Another portion, probably a fairly healthy one, could be assessed to the uncertainty of the Niedermayer and Selanne situations. Although the Ducks will never admit it, you got a sense while watching them that they were biding time until the cavalry arrived. Now that it has, you have to believe that these Ducks will begin to more closely resemble the championship squad.

One of Niedermayer's greatest strengths is his ability to make his teammates more effective players. Like a great goalie, his presence lends an air of calm to the proceedings. Knowing he's on the ice buys a teammate that extra split second to make not just a play, but the right play. A few more good plays each night, and this team will find its footing fast.

There's no set timetable for Niedermayer's return. Estimates range from a week to 14 days, depending on whom you ask. But before that can happen, Burke has a thorny dilemma that he'll have to address: creating "tagging" room under the cap.

Essentially, even though he may not play next season, Niedermayer's activation puts the Ducks 2008-09 commitments over the current cap. The cap figure may or may not go up before next season, but a team's commitments cannot exceed the current level. Confused? Join the club -- the line forms right behind me.

As a result, Burke will have to divest himself of a million dollars or so, and that means moving a player currently on the roster for nothing more than picks or prospects in return. But that's not his only option.

With more cap problems looming -- leading goal-scorer Corey Perry is headed for restricted free agency this summerv -- Burke could look for a larger deal that gives him a little more breathing room and maybe helps address other issues. In that case, the player most likely to be shipped is defenseman Mathieu Schneider, who's been a valuable performer for the team since returning from the IR on Nov.1. And even at 38 -- with one more year to go on his deal -- there'll be plenty of suitors for the smooth-skating vet. Chicago and Atlanta are likely to be among the most ardent.

Once he finds a taker, Burke's real challenge will be adding some affordable scoring. Selanne's replacement, Todd Bertuzzi, is playing better of late, but isn't earning his $4 million hit. With the Ducks being the second-lowest scoring squad in the West, they can't wait around with the hope he rediscovers his 2002-03 form.

Ideally, free agent Selanne will return at a bargain rate and provide a second-half boost. But with his wife having just given birth to the couple's fourth child in Finland, you have to believe he's no more inclined to leave them alone now than he was at the start of the season. That leaves it up to Burke to back up his rep as one of the league's best general managers and make a deal of some consequence.

Niedermayer may be out of the woods, but the Ducks? They still have a ways to go.

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