Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne and Jean-Sebastien Giguere have led the way and the Anaheim Ducks are flying along with one of the best records in NHL history at this point of the season.
With Norris Trophy winners Pronger and Niedermayer anchoring the defence and igniting the offence, a rejuvenated Selanne putting the puck into the net and Giguere keeping it out of it at the other end of the ice, the Ducks have a 27-5-6 record.
They’ve failed to earn at least a point in only five games and their 60 points tie them for the fifth most through 38 games, matching the Montreal Canadiens in 1975-76 and 1976-77. Two of the Ducks’ points are from shootout victories, which would have been ties back then.
The 1929-30 Boston Bruins top the list with 67 points after 38 games.
“There’s a reason why they’re first in the league,” Dallas’ Stephane Robidas said after the Ducks dominated the Stars in a recent 4-1 victory. “They played the game the same way they’ve been playing all year.
“They just work hard and play within their system and play the game the way it should be.”
Said Niedermayer: “So far our guys have been doing a great job staying committed and working as hard as they can.”
The Ducks are much changed since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the team from The Walt Disney Co. in February 2005 during the NHL lockout. The new owners have dropped the “Mighty” from the Disney movie-inspired name and dumped the teal and purple team colours, switching to a more foreboding black and gold with orange and white accents.
They hired Brian Burke as general manager and Randy Carlyle as coach and brought in some well-established players. Among the acquisitions were the free-agent signings of Niedermayer and Selanne in August 2005, and the surprising Ducks went on to make the Western Conference final last season.
In July, they got Pronger in a trade with Edmonton, a move many believe has made them the Stanley Cup favourites this season.
The veterans, including the 36-year-old Selanne (19 goals, 45 points) blend with a talented group of younger players, including centre Ryan Getzlaf and right-winger Corey Perry, both 21.
“We have a very nice chemistry,” said goalie Giguere, who ranks first in the league with 23 wins and third in goals-against average at 2.12. “Most of the guys were back from last year, they know their roles real well on the ice and they know what the coaching staff is expecting from them.
“Off the ice, we have a good bunch of guys. We have had a lot of team dinners, team lunches, and it makes for a fun time. It’s important for us to know each other.”
Everything starts with Carlyle, who was a rugged defenceman who won the Norris Trophy in 1981 with Pittsburgh and is in his first NHL head coaching job.
He’s a stickler for conditioning, saying that today’s players need more energy and the ability to play at a high tempo. The older players have their regimens down pat.
“We try to educate our younger players through push, pull, kick, whatever method we have to use so that they find that program of development,” Carlyle said. “If they don’t do it, we’ll do it for them.”
Pronger, 32, and Niedermayer, 33, set the tone on the ice. Along with their outstanding defensive skills, each provides offensive spark: Pronger is fifth in the league with 31 assists and has seven goals, and Niedermayer has 30 points.
“We do things differently, but we both have the same goals,” said Niedermayer, at six-foot-one some five inches shorter than the towering Pronger. “Obviously, he’s a great defenceman. He’s got a huge reach and he’s unbelievable with his stick, knocking pucks away and not letting anybody get by at any time.
“He can take the puck off them and when he does get it, he’s as good a passer as anybody and he’s got a great shot.”
Asked about Niedermayer’s play, Pronger chuckled and said: “Jealousy might be the word. Anytime we played against him in the past, I always said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to skate like that for just one game in your career?’ The way he works his way up the ice is a treat for people to watch.”
Giguere gets a kick out of watching those two.
“It’s really fun. They’re great players,” he said. “The good thing with them is they make you better as a player, make you better as a team. They show you what it takes to win. Those guys are so valuable to this team.”