Commentary

Stanley Cup Hangover theory? Carlyle, Ducks not going there

Updated: November 2, 2007, 1:06 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Imagine removing the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo from the Louvre and placing them in storage for cleaning. Or, closer to home, announcing that the "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Indiana Jones" rides in Disneyland were shutting down for an indefinite period for maintenance.

Not quite the same museum. Not nearly the same theme park.

Not that the early-season woes of the defending Stanley Cup-champion Anaheim Ducks can be solely heaped on the exasperating wait for inspirational captain Scott Niedermayer and top point-getter Teemu Selanne to make a call on perhaps extending their careers.

Robert Niedermayer and Scott Niedermayer
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDucks fans would like to see Rob, left, and Scott Niedermayer reunited again in Anaheim.

That's too simple an explanation.

So is the obligatory Stanley Cup Hangover theory.

No, a dizzying battering ram of circumstances have conspired to pluck the Ducks.

There've been injuries to key people: Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Samuel Pahlsson and Ryan Getzlaf, among others. Todd Bertuzzi and Mathieu Schneider, brought aboard as insurance policies for the undecided Selanne and Niedermayer, respectively, have missed significant time. The season-opening trip to London (that'd be England, not Ontario) knocked a significant amount of wind out of them. They returned home to three straight out-of-town home openers and have never quite regained their footing.

Ingested together, they've proven to be a deadly cocktail of concern.

"Hey," said coach Randy Carlyle, calling from his office in the Honda Center. "How's it going?"

Passable, thanks. You?

"I've been better," was the weary reply.

Understandable. A year ago at this moment in time, Carlyle's Ducks were sailing along at 10-0-3 for 23 points. This season, the wind has dropped, the sails are slack and Anaheim is 4-7-2, for 10 points.

Not that the top Duck is crying fowl.

"We are not using excuses," Carlyle emphasized. "Sure, there have been different factors, special challenges. But you're judged on the way you play, and we're not getting the results we expect.

"People keep saying this or that is the reason you're struggling -- pretty soon you're going to believe it. They're human. It's like the Stanley Cup Hangover theory. All summer long, you're being patted on the back, posing for pictures, being told you how wonderful you are. So when you get back to training camp, you need to be reminded of the process, the sacrifices, that were required to be successful in the first place.

"But that's our job as coaches and management: To remind them."

At the moment, the Ducks are thrashing just to keep their heads above water. What had seemed such a deep, invincible group as it marched methodically toward a Stanley Cup title in June, now seems oddly vulnerable. The goals have dried up. Injuries, such a happy non-issue a season ago, are mounting. The Niedermayer-Selanne distraction grows with each succeeding loss.

No team could afford to lose their top two goal scorers, Selanne (48) and Dustin Penner (29), as well as arguably the game's most valuable player, Niedermayer, and not be playing catch-up.

In an effort to get his players away from the misery and, at least briefly, clear the clutter from their minds, Carlyle ordered them to stay away from the rink Monday and Tuesday. Not that the Ducks' play has warranted any time off. A 1-0 home loss to the perennial whipping-boy Phoenix Coyotes, followed by a shootout loss to the team dearest to Anaheim GM Brian Burke's heart, the Edmonton Oilers, has left them lingering near the nether regions of the Western Conference.

"If you look at our schedule from Sept. 10 to now, we've been going at a pretty hectic pace," Carlyle said. "We went overseas to start, came back for three straight road games, have had injuries, call-ups. Lots of people are banged up, bumped and bruised. Our work ethic hasn't been the issue, our execution has. So, this seemed the best time to let them get away. Not that hockey's ever going to be completely out of anyone's mind.

"The London trip was a great experience. Beautiful building. Both games were sold out. We committed to it last November. We agreed to go as representatives of the league. It was our decision. But we just didn't have the necessary energy, emotion or physical presence after we got back. People say, 'Oh, it's only an eight-hour time difference.' But try going from the West Coast to the East, then overseas, and coming back again in a short space of time. It isn't that easy."

A season ago, the Ducks were incredibly lucky health-wise. Carlyle can't remember any significant losses prior to Christmas. This go around, the whims of chance are exacting revenge.

Giguere, the undisputed No. 1 in net, wasn't around to start the season after sports hernia surgery over the summer. Carlyle's checking line of Pahlsson, Travis Moen and Rob Niedermayer -- "the glue" as the coach calls them -- each played 103 regular-season and playoff games last season. All three have already missed time this season.

The news is improving, thankfully.

Rob Niedermayer (groin strain, missed three games), Getzlaf (forearm strain, missed two) and, at long last, Schneider, who suffered an ankle fracture in his Anaheim exhibition debut on Sept. 15, were all back in harness Thursday at home to the surprising Columbus Blue Jackets. The Ducks won 2-1.

Getting some of the injured back, hopefully with an emotional return by Scott Niedermayer sooner than later, and the Ducks again will be competitive. Bet on that. There's simply too much talent in too many places for this malaise to continue. But even then, the odds are prohibitive against another happy ending near the Happiest Place on Earth.

Even when healthy, Bertuzzi, the Ol' Cannoli Truck, can't hope to replenish Selanne's production. And not only is Selanne's absence being felt in the goal totals, but center Andy McDonald, who'd developed such a wonderful on-ice rapport with the Finnish Flash, is struggling without him.

The Ducks are also up against history. Only two franchises over the past 20 years, the 1990-91 Mario Lemieux-inspired Pittsburgh Penguins and 1997-98 Stevie Y-propelled Detroit Red Wings, have successfully defended a title.

There's always a particular feel about a team on its way to a championship. Anaheim had it in copious quantities this spring. That particular hubris -- luck, skill, destiny, timing -- has proven to be incredibly difficult to recapture.

Right now, though, righting the boat is everyone's immediate objective, not winning the regatta.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.