Not the happiest place anymore

Originally Published: August 16, 2004
By Tom Wheatley | Special to

Al Coates

Within 12 months, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks yo-yoed almost as far as you can go -- up and down -- on the success meter.

Having shocked the NHL by reaching the Stanley Cup finals in 2003, they re-shocked the NHL by crashing to 12th in the Western Conference, 25 points out of a 2004 playoff spot.

This Disney rocket ride was dizzying times two. And with any first-to-almost-worst adventure, it was a team effort in both directions.

Coach Mike Babcock's team wound up with a record of 29-35-10-8 for 76 points, ahead of only Phoenix in the five-team Pacific Division.

The individual focal point was Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The young goalie proved mortal last season after his spooky-good run to Game 7 of the '03 Cup finals against New Jersey.

Even the Giggy of old couldn't have carried last year's Ducks. They started last season without longtime captain Paul Kariya, who abandoned ship and made for Colorado as a free agent when the Ducks refused to make him a $10 million qualifying offer.

Enter pricey center Sergei Fedorov. But the gifted free agent from Detroit took awhile to get used to life on The Pond.

Playoff fatigue and injuries -- two sides of the same coin -- also conspired against Anaheim. The catch phrase for this summer is get well soon.

By far the biggest offseason move was the abrupt defection of general manager Bryan Murray, who opted to become head coach in Ottawa.

Murray's replacement is former Calgary GM Al Coates, who moved up from senior vice president for business ops in Anaheim.

Coates discussed last year's debacle, and this year's hoped-for turnaround, with's Tom Wheatley. Can you briefly assess last season for us?
Coates: "Obviously we as an organization didn't live up to expectations. When you're 40 minutes away in Game 7 from capturing what we all chase -- the Stanley Cup -- we expected more last season.

"To me, there were lots of things, not one single thing. But we just never seemed to get untracked from Day 1 or 2 of training camp. At times, we played like the team was capable of playing. And then we'd fall back again.

"There were lots of positive points during the season, but they were not great enough to make you happy. In a nutshell, we were not happy with the outcome of last season. And we can't wait to get started again."

Which players had the biggest impact for your last season, or made the biggest strides?
"Game in and game out, Sammy Pahlsson might have been as good a forward as we had. And the acquisition of Martin Skoula from Colorado gave us a puckhandling, good-skating defenseman. (Joffrey) Lupul played all but three or four games with us last year and showed signs of being a real good NHL player."

(Pahlsson had 22 points, including eight goals, in 82 games while averaging almost 17 minutes per game. Lupul, a rookie, had 34 points, including 13 goals, in 75 games. Both are centermen.)

Which player needs to bounce back or take the next big step?
"(Stanislav) Chistov, who played extremely well in the run to the finals on a line with Pahlsson and Steve Thomas, struggled with our team last year. But he played really well after the season with Cincinnati in the AHL playoffs. They got eliminated in their conference finals by Milwaukee, which won the Calder Trophy.

"We spent half a year without (Sandis) Ozolinsh, our All-Star puck-moving defenseman, and Keith Carney got hurt in the final preseason game and missed six weeks. Up front, Rob Niedermayer missed almost half a year (27 games), and Mike Leclerc only played two weeks.

"What we want, really, is our players healthy. And they are now all healthy and ready to go. But you know, a guy like (Steve) Rucchin didn't miss any games, but we had played like to June 9th last year. That was something new to most of these people.

"I've said over and over, it's one thing to deal with failure, and it's another thing to deal with success. We had a lot of success last year, but we were not quite ready to attack and repeat."

Who in the system is ready for the NHL?
"We made a couple of trades here for kids who might be ready. We sent Martin Gerber, our backup goalie, to Carolina for Tomas Malec, a young defenseman. We think that he has a chance to play here now.

"We traded Gerber because we have (Ilya) Bryzgalov. We just re-signed Bryzgalov and he's ready to back up Giguere.

"And we acquired (Kurtis) Foster from Altanta (for Niclas Havelid). He's a defenseman who won the hardest shot contest at the AHL All-Star Game. He has a cannon for a shot and he's a right-handed shot, something that we need here.

"We also have two players in Cincinnati: Marc Popovic, who's a left-handed shot, a defensive defenseman, and Shane O'Brien, who is more of an enforcer-character type of defenseman. They will both challenge for spots.

"And we like our two first-round picks from a year ago. Corey Perry plays under Dale Hunter on the London Knights, and he was first or second in scoring in the OHL last year. And the first of our two picks, Ryan Getzlaf from the Calgary Hitmen, was one of the top scores in the Western League. He also played on the Canadian World Junior team.

(Perry ranked second in the OHL with 103 points, including 40 goals, in 66 games. Getzlaf had a WHL-best 1.53 points per game. He scored 75 points, including 28 goals, in just 49 games.)

"With our injuries, the expectation was that both Lupul and Chistov were going to play on the parent Ducks. We felt that we only wanted to keep two kids. Otherwise Getzlaf could have stayed last year, too.

"And (Mikael) Holmquist only played part of the year here (21 games) before he had a concussion. He's a big kid who can really skate."

What is your top priority to improve the organization?
"We have to change our mix here. We are a very skillful team that's capable of playing harder than we did a year ago. Like always, we want to add quickness to our lineup. We don't need to be a whole lot better. We do need to add a role player or two up front and another on the back end.

"Having said that, we want to leave some openings for some of these youngsters, and not have a closed shop coming into camp."

What was your favorite moment last season?
"Raising the championship banner from winning the Western Conference the year before."

The least favorite?
"It was a game which followed a game in January. The first game, we won 2-1 in Vancouver. We really believed we had turned the corner and our real team was back. We were solid right from the get-go. Giguere was on top of his game. We were playing Ducks hockey from the previous championship year.

"Two nights later, we played that way again for 30 minutes at home against Calgary. And then we lost. We didn't just lose, we regressed right back to where we were before. We fell right off the end of the cliff.

"Those were my least favorite two-and-a-half hours of the season."

What activity took you the furthest from from hockey this summer?
"I host a charity golf tourney in Listowel, Ontario, up in that Kitchener-Waterloo-Stratford area. It's the 11th consecutive year. We raised money for Community Living Assistance, a fund that we established to help families where they need it.

"My wife and three children and myself were up there, and we had 39 six-somes go out this year. And it was great."

Tom Wheatley is a frequent contributor to He is the co-author of Bob Plager's "Tales from the Blues Bench" and "The Memoirs of Bing Devine," both available from Sports Publishing LLC.