Relying on two stellar blueliners who also provide offensive firepower, Anaheim has become the best team in the league
JOE DIPENTA and Shane O'Brien are the third-string defensive pair for the Mighty Ducks—the NHL equivalent of Maytag repairmen. They mostly sit and watch because either Scott Niedermayer or Chris Pronger (or, on power plays, both) is typically on the ice between 50 and 55 minutes a night for Anaheim, giving the Ducks the best play of any two defensemen in the league. "Wondering who's been better for us is like wondering who's better looking, Julia Roberts or Nicole Kidman," says Anaheim general manager Brian Burke of his two stars. "Both guys are 10s."
As are the Ducks so far this season. At week's end Anaheim had the fourth-highest point total (56) in NHL history through 35 games, thanks in large part to the 33-year-old Niedermayer and the 32-year-old Pronger, who was acquired in July in a trade with the Oilers. The two have been so superb that after a 5--4 win over the Panthers last week, Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle expressed disappointment that the duo had been off their form. Pronger, who is paired with defenseman Sean O'Donnell, had merely scored twice on point shots in the third period. Niedermayer, the team captain, had produced a paltry two assists, including a nifty feed to his defensive partner, Fran√ßois Beauchemin, who was hustling down the left wing in a four-on-four situation. Pronger was named the No. 1 star of the game. Niedermayer was the No. 2 star.
"There's always one you have to deal with defensively, but they're also threats offensively," says Florida left wing Martin Gélinas. "[The 6' 6", 220-pound Pronger] is so strong, always taking the body, and the other one has probably the top vision in the NHL."
Both are also highly decorated defensemen. Niedermayer has a Memorial Cup (the top prize in Canadian junior hockey), a world junior championship, a World Cup, a world championship, an Olympic gold medal, a Norris Trophy and three Stanley Cups (all with the Devils). Pronger has a Norris Trophy as well as an Olympic gold. "Neither has an ego," says Burke. "When we made the deal [for Pronger], Scottie knew we weren't trading for a [new] captain. We were getting someone who could make us better, and he welcomed it."
There have been impressive pairs of defensemen in the postexpansion era: Niedermayer and Scott Stevens in New Jersey, Pronger and Al MacInnis in St. Louis, Brian Leetch and Sergei Zubov with the Rangers, but Burke thinks the only grouping comparable to Anaheim's was Montreal's Big Three in the late 1970s, when Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe were among the NHL's top six defensemen. With Niedermayer and Pronger, the Ducks have two thirds of the league's true elite, missing only four-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom of the Red Wings. At week's end, Pronger led defensemen in scoring with 35 points and had been a minus-player in just five games. Niedermayer was six points behind him, in third place.
The two veterans have distinctly different styles. Pronger is a by-the-numbers guy who craves the structure that allows him to rifle breakout passes without having to ponder the situation too much. Niedermayer is more cerebral, more artistic. He is rarely caught out of position—New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire curbed some of Niedermayer's bad impulses early in the defenseman's career—and uses his exceptional speed to outsprint any mistakes. Niedermayer figure-skated on hockey skates when he was young ("That's where you learn crossovers," he says), and now he seems less to glide on the ice than hover above it, just as Anaheim is doing to the rest of the Western Conference.
The unprepossessing blueliners on the last two Cup winners, Tampa Bay and Carolina, belied the axiom that championship teams need a franchise defenseman. Pronger and Niedermayer may be proving that, in fact, championship teams need two.
Pierre McGuire's In the Crease
The Penguins have something that all teams need: a solid energy line. Coach Michel Therrien was smart to put Maxime Talbot in between superpest Jarkko Ruutu and grinding Chris Thorburn. This line can skate, hit and deliver the message that opponents won't get away with ganging up on Sidney Crosby.... Thanks to elite goaltending, excellent special teams and the strong leadership of Saku Koivu (above), the Canadiens are off to a hot start (19-8-5 through Sunday). Koivu (14 goals) is one of the most under-appreciated captains in the league.... The Flyers will most likely finish near the bottom in the East, but one positive is the intelligence and composure of new coach John Stevens. Philadelphia is going to have to use a lot of young players, and Stevens knows how to help them mature without crushing their confidence.