- Scott Burnside, NHL
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On the eve of the NHL season, in London, England, of all places, Anaheim GM Brian Burke confided one of his biggest fears.
It wasn't so much that his Ducks would miss Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne, but that the team would have one eye on the door, waiting for the erstwhile superstars to magically appear and solve their problems.
We're about to find out whether that subconscious wondering and hoping has been part of the Ducks' problems through the first quarter of the season now that the doorway is about to be filled with Niedermayer's significant presence.
After much hemming and hawing, Niedermayer, one of the top two defensemen of his generation (Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit would be the other), will ride in like the proverbial white knight within the next week.
"You could be a GM in this league for 30 years and never have a defenseman as good Scott Niedermayer," Burke told ESPN.com Wednesday night.
Niedermayer will begin working out with the Ducks on Thursday morning and has 21 days to get in shape before he must become part of the roster and count against the cap.
Although there are different numbers floating around, Burke said he thinks the team only has to clear less than $1.5 million from next season's books to fit in Niedermayer.
Regardless, barring a setback in the economics or in Niedermayer's training regimen, the silky-skating defenseman will be back in the lineup before the end of next week.
After Niedermayer led the Ducks to the Western Conference finals in 2006 and the Stanley Cup in 2007, the stakes now might be even higher for him and the Ducks. This isn't necessarily about repeating as Cup champs. History, logic and odds all suggests it's nearly impossible to affect the Cup Redux. The Pittsburgh Penguins did it in 1991 and 1992 and Detroit rung up back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998, the last team to do so. Last spring, the two 2006 Cup finalists, Edmonton and Carolina, didn't even make the playoffs.
These opportunities come along so infrequently.
Tampa Bay won a seminal Stanley Cup in 2004 and the lockout held up the Lightning's title defense until the 2005-06 season. The Lightning haven't won a playoff round since, and while attendance remains strong, one wonders about the opportunities lost in that market. The Carolina Hurricanes likewise took Raleigh by storm in 2005-06. Playing wildly exciting hockey, they proved that y'all can build a winner in the South. Then, they fell off the map in 2006-07. The Hurricanes should be a playoff team this season, but they are desperate for another run to make up for the lost chance.
Burke and his Ducks are staring at exactly that kind of reality.
The Ducks' season-ticket sales went through the roof after their Cup win. They had to cap sales at 15,000 and there is a waiting list. Imagine that, a waiting list for Anaheim season tickets.
The team sold out its first 15 home dates this season (the Ducks were actually beyond 100-percent capacity thanks to jam-packed suites and standing-room only tickets), an increase of 13.9 percent over a year ago.
The Ducks had their 49th straight sellout Wednesday night against Buffalo and boast the third-longest such streak among U.S.-based NHL teams (Minnesota and the New York Rangers lead the way).
But as good as life has been for the Ducks in terms of their presence in the community, it is by no means guaranteed. History shows that -- you've got to make hay when the sun shines, and the sun doesn't shine if you don't prove to your fans that the first time wasn't a fluke.
And so, Mr. Niedermayer and Co. have their work cut out for them in making sure they don't become the second straight defending Cup winner to miss the playoffs altogether. Burke said he had already started tinkering with his lineup at the 20-game mark because the team's level of play was unacceptable.
Heading into Wednesday's tilt, the Ducks were 11th in the Western Conference. They ranked 28th on the power play, 29th in average goals per game, 21st in 5-on-5 production and 26th on the penalty kill. To top it off, Anaheim came off back-to-back losses to rival Edmonton while being outscored 9-1.
The team has lacked scoring depth, cohesion on the power play and overall consistency. It's as though it was waiting for something to break, for someone to point it in the right direction.
Burke acknowledged Wednesday it's "human nature" for his players to have been wondering if Niedermayer and/or Teemu Selanne would return. Then, at that very moment, as though to highlight what he was talking about, the Buffalo Sabres broke in on the Anaheim zone on a two-man break and scored the game's first goal.
Did someone say just in the nick of time?
A season ago, the Ducks were a machine. Tough, talented, chests puffed out, daring anyone to knock the chip off their shoulder. They could beat you any way they wanted. They led the NHL with a 34-5-9 record when they scored first. They had the third-best power play and the fifth-ranked penalty-killing unit. They were the only team to have a top-five unit in both special teams departments.
Niedermayer was a major force all over the ice, a catalyst to that greatness.
He led all defensemen with 69 points in the regular season and was later named playoff MVP. He scored two playoff game-winners, both in overtime, and saved the Ducks' postseason with a crucial tying goal late in Game 5 of the West finals in Detroit.
He won his first Stanley Cup with his brother, Rob. They embraced and hoisted the Cup together, and the gray in Scott's playoff beard suggested that maybe this was it.
The Ducks' captain done it all, accomplished all there was to do. Winning with Rob was the final piece, the moment frozen on the cover of the NHL's Official Guide and Record Book.
Who knows how it'll turn out.
For a graybeard who wasn't really sure he wanted to be in the game at all, it's a lot to ask for him to come in midway through the season, take on a leading role and pull this team not just into the playoffs, but into contention. Still, he's just 34 (according to Burke, he's actually 37 given the playoff and international hockey he's played in his career). If anyone has the wherewithal to simply turn on greatness, it's Niedermayer.
In the end, though, if the rest of the players in the locker room really were casting a sideways glance at the door, then they've certainly run out of excuses now.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
If anyone can return on a dime and turn on the greatness, it's Scott Niedermayer. But to ask the veteran defenseman to save this Anaheim club from disaster is a lot to ask.