Just Ducky

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In the wake of the hard-won Collective Bargaining Agreement there was a general consensus that it suddenly became a whole lot harder to be a good-to-great general manager in the National Hockey League.

With a nod to the declaration that no man is perfect, I offer up a candidate for master of the new agreement, the precursor to sainthood and greatness conferred upon the likes of hockey legends Sam Pollack, Bill Torrey and, in more recent times, Detroit's Ken Holland and New Jersey's Lou Lamoriello.

His name is Brian Burke and he manages the defending Stanley Cup champions in that somewhat under-the-radar hockey hotbed of Anaheim, CA.

Exhibit A: the re-signing of defenseman Scott Niedermayer after a 34-game pseudo-retirement.

Admittedly it's still early with regard to the net return, but in the three games the once-struggling Ducks have played since the swift-skating defenseman returned, they have won two and gained a point in that not-a-loss-but-not-a-win-netherworld the NHL has created via the shootout.

In those three games, the Ducks have given up all of two goals in regulation time while beating San Jose 2-0 (after losing 2-1 in a shootout two nights earlier) and Colorado 2-1 in overtime on Wednesday.

Big deal you say? Well, yes, it is a big deal.

Before the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy-winner (playoff MVP) returned, the Ducks were a hapless lot. There was the inevitable Stanley Cup hangover, but their problems went beyond that. They seemed to lack leadership. They were mistake prone, especially in their own end. They were unfocused at home and on the road, and they took penalties at an unreasonable rate. We're not talking about the kinds of physical penalties the Ducks are now famous for. We're talking about foolish, lazy and undisciplined penalties that cost games and points. In just three outings, Niedermayer has changed that.

"You kind of forget how good he was, for a second," goalie J-S Giguere said after Niedermayer, in his season debut, the Ducks to their shutout win over San Jose with team-highs of eight shots on goal and four hits plus three takeaways in 23 minutes 52 seconds of ice time. "He's just amazing."

So was Burke's effort to get him back in the lineup without going over the salary cap and destroying the talent base he had built since his arrival from Vancouver.

For starters, Burke talked Niedermayer into playing again. He did it carefully, not pressuring his All-Star, letting him take his time and regain his passion for the game. It didn't hurt that Burke knew that Niedermayer is a passionate guy and a player who feels a great sense of loyalty to his team. Burke could have tried to patch the gaping hole in his lineup during the offseason, but that would have created cap problems and likely not produced a player as good as the one who had left.

It also probably didn't hurt that Niedermayer saw his team was struggling without him. Had the Ducks gotten off to a good start, his retirement might have been official and permanent. Burke had the good sense to let these things play out.

Next, Burke didn't trade Matthieu Schneider, the former Red Wings defenseman he signed in the offseason and the player almost everyone pegged as most-likely-to-be-traded in order to fit Niedermayer under the cap. Instead, Burke used the little understood "tagging" rule to free up cap space. Then he crafted a darnn-fine deal that allowed him to have arguably the best top-four defensive unit in the game today and likely improve his team by adding veteran center Doug Weight.

It must be said that Weight, long a standout performer in St. Louis, is past his prime as a goal-scorer, but he is still an exceptional skater, fine passer, strong on faceoffs, good defensively in his own end of the ice, and a great presence in the dressing room. Perhaps more importantly, he ranks high in the "intangible" department. He also has a hunger to win the Cup before his time in the game is done.

Burke did give up a younger, talented player in Andy McDonald, who was a big part of Anaheim's success last spring, especially against Ottawa in the Cup final, but he had been surpassed as a first-line center by Ryan Getzlaf. McDonald could well be a star for the Blues, but Getzlaf has already achieved that status. With Weight anchoring the second line, the Ducks have traded youth for experience that will help Getzlaf develop to his full potential and play a role in defending the championship, something that is usually harder than winning one.

In addition to Getzlaf, Weight can be expected to help develop newly-arrived prospect Bobby Ryan on his left side. McDonald got a lot of his points last season feeding the puck to the Ducks' other big-name absentee: Teemu Selanne (40 goals). McDonald had also lost his spot on the No.1 power play unit to Getzlaf. Weight can fit nicely as a center on the second unit.

Still, the key to the deal overall was getting Niedermayer in under the cap AND keeping Schneider on the roster. Schneider is an offensive force and key performer on the power play, but he also plays well in his own end. Retaining him allows coach Randy Carlyle to play Niedermayer with the rugged and defensive-minded Francois Beauchemin, one of the rising blueline stars in the NHL. Burke also has All-Star Chris Pronger with the rock-solid Sean O'Donnell and Schneider paired with the steady Kent Huskins.

It's a dream defense that creates offense from the back end while blending pairs that have offensive might and defensive skills. That was the cornerstone to Anaheim's success last season. With Niedermayer back and Schneider still in the lineup, it's stronger, deeper and more talented than ever.

Burke made surprising and innovative moves in making that happen, not the least of which was the controversial but fiscally sound waiver of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov rather than take on salary via trade. McDonald-for-Weight allows the possibility of re-signing younger talent with expiring contracts that must be addressed before next season.

Burke has done a masterful job. Even if he doesn't talk Selanne out of retirement or adds just one more scorer to his forward ranks, his team is once again a Cup contender and he may well be the NHL's GM of the year.

Iron Mike's milestone

The NHL's 600-win club is an exclusive group that now includes Mike Keenan, who joined his mentor Scotty Bowman (the winingest coach of all time), Al Arbour, Dick Irvin, Pat Quinn and Bryan Murray.

For a long time it appeared that Keenan, the coach of the Calgary Flames, wasn't going to get there. Give Iron Mike credit for having a sense of humility about achieving the milestone last Sunday night in St. Louis, one of the many stops in his NHL career.

"It means a lot of owners and a lot of managers had a lot of confidence in me, particularly this last hire with Darryl (Sutter) hiring me," Keenan said after Craig Conroy presented him with the game puck. "That gives you longevity. Then you have to have good teams and good players to have that kind of run and that kind of success over time. It takes a lot of good fortune to be in this league for that long."

It should be noted that all but Sutter have also fired Keenan, making him the most well-traveled head coach in the history of the game: eight teams. It's also fitting that Conroy grabbed the puck. Conroy is almost as well-traveled as Keenan and was one of the many players Keenan brought into St. Louis when he was coach and, for a time, GM there (1994-97).

Road show

It's among the most obscure records in hockey, but when the Flames went 6-0 on their recent road trip, they tied a mark set by the 1971-72 Boston Bruins. The Flames won at Chicago, Florida, Tampa, Carolina, St. Louis and Columbus. In some respects, that accomplishment is more impressive than what the Bruins did. They were allowed to rest up by returning to Boston and sit out a Christmas break. The Flames never returned to Calgary during their run.

Chicago stunner

Rocky Wirtz, the son of the late William Wirtz, continues to put his stamp on the Chicago Blackhawks franchise with seemingly little concern for his father's controversial legacy.

Just days after his father's passing, the younger Wirtz cleared out much of the old guard, including longtime fixture and senior confidant, Bob Pulford. He also put home games on TV (something his father fought right to his grave) and now he's brought back former Blackhawk legends Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita as official ambassadors.

Hull, who has been estranged from the franchise ever since he signed with the renegade World Hockey Association some 35 years ago, said he was "overwhelmed" by the invite. Mikita, who has also been on the outs almost as long, acknowledged he was "thrilled." It's thought that these latest moves are the first of many from newly-hired President John McDonough and they likely are, but it couldn't have happened without Rocky Wirtz giving the go-ahead.

Overwhelmed is a fitting word for all this going on in Chicago now, and so is thrilled, but stunning is most likely on the lips of long-time Hawks fans who just might start believing that ownership is finally committed to doing things right.

Land of the free

Last week, we told you that the Florida Panthers led the NHL in handing out complimentary tickets: 122,894 over 41 home games in 2006-07, a per-game average of 2,997. Amazingly, that total represents a 32.5 percent drop from the previous season when the Panthers distributed 182,046 comps, or 4,440 per game. Their 2,997 per-game total represented 15 percent of capacity, but the season before, the figure was 23 percent.

Second in the freebee parade last season were the Atlanta Thrashers with 107,310 -- an average of 2,617 per game. The surprise was the third-place Colorado Avalanche (98,828) -- an average of 2,410 per game and 13 percent of capacity.

The team with the fewest freebees -- the Edmonton Oilers, with a mere 209 per game -- edged out the Detroit Red Wings, who distributed 212 per game, and the New York Rangers, who gave away 240 per.

The Oilers, Wings, Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs (242) all were in the one percent range of freebies vs. total capacity. Other big market teams with big comp lists include the Blackhawks (2,282); Dallas Stars (2,057) and Los Angeles Kings (2,049).