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Anaheim Ducks banking on star forwards for playoff return

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Teemu Selanne could have glided into retirement this summer after a remarkably rejuvenated season with the Anaheim Ducks. Instead, the 40-year-old forward is back for another year with a rebuilding club widely expected to miss the playoffs.

Why would Selanne put himself through such troubles? He was a major player in the Ducks' rise to the NHL's pinnacle in 2007, and he wants to play a small role in putting this franchise on the way back up.

He also doesn't think the Ducks are as far away from contention as many experts believe.

"It's exciting to be with all the young guys who are going to be the leaders of this franchise going forward," Selanne said. "We're going to have a really good team here before too long. There's a lot of talent, and I really wanted to be a part of it."

Just three years after the Ducks won their only Stanley Cup, the twin foundations of that championship team are out of Orange County. After the departures of defencemen Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, the Ducks are building around their three young world-class talents up front: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan.

Getzlaf will lead the way after his teammates elected him captain last weekend. The 25-year-old centre, who pronounced himself humbled by the responsibility, is eager to see how the Ducks will respond to a full season under new leadership—and without Olympic distractions.

"We're well aware we're not a team that's going to blow people out," Getzlaf said. "We're going to have to work and win those one-goal games, those overtime games. Our goaltenders are going to give us a chance to win every night, and it's up to us to do it."

Anaheim missed the playoffs last spring for the first time since 2004, done in by a slow start and a tired finish despite having eight Olympians on their 23-man roster. Getzlaf and Perry helped Canada to gold medals in Vancouver, but had little left in the tank when they returned—particularly Getzlaf, who played in just 10 games after the Olympics, shutting it down after March 24 with an injured left knee.

"We really want to have a good start to the season, because we didn't do it last year," veteran centre Saku Koivu said. "That makes a big difference in how you approach everything else."

To do it, the Ducks' longtime identity as a defence-dominated, physical team inevitably must change in the absence of Pronger, Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin. Anaheim's new defence is a hodgepodge of veterans (Lubomir Visnovsky, injured Toni Lydman) and untested youngsters (18-year-old Cam Fowler), with Sheldon Brookbank the only blueliner remaining from last season's opener.

The most intriguing defenceman is Fowler, the 12th overall pick in last June's draft. He impressed Anaheim's coaches, and models himself on Niedermayer—but he's bound to endure growing pains if the Ducks elect to keep him beyond the nine-game tryout window before players are required to return to their junior teams.

"It amazes me, year after year, how much younger the guys are," said Selanne, who scored 73 goals for the Winnipeg Jets as a 22-year-old in 1993. "I don't think I would have been ready at 18 to come in here and do that, but it happens all the time now. We're going to need everybody's help to win this season, no matter what age."

The Ducks weren't very good on defence last year, and goalie Jonas Hiller is likely to be among the hardest-working men in hockey again this season—he faced 43 shots in Anaheim's pre-season finale last Sunday. The Swiss goalie appears to be up for the task in the first year of his US$18-million contract extension.

"It helps to have the whole team together for the whole year, but there's definitely got to be some improvement," Hiller said. "We're not close to where we want to be. It's close, but we still have some work to do."

If the Ducks can score in bunches, their shortcomings on defence won't be so glaring. Getzlaf and Perry remain one of the NHL's most potent combos—and they're even better when teamed with Ryan, although coach Randy Carlyle tried the American left wing at centre during the pre-season. Selanne and Koivu haven't slowed down much in the later phase of their careers, while youngsters Dan Sexton and Matt Beleskey must mature quickly to help out.

Anaheim realizes its challenges in a Pacific Division stacked with San Jose, Los Angeles and Phoenix, but Getzlaf believes his young team has the pieces to return to the playoffs immediately. It's just a matter of putting those pieces together.

"Nobody in this room doubts we can do it," Getzlaf said. "But we've got to do it every night."


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