Saturday, July 25, 2009

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Anaheim calling to the hockey world...

It was March of 2003. I had returned to Southern California on Spring Break from Berkeley. Daniel and I were watching TV and talking about the Ducks when suddenly, I looked at him and very seriously said, "I think this is their year." He looked back skeptically. "Maybe. We'll see," Daniel-speak for, "You iz crazy." I reiterated forcefully, "No, I'm serious. I get the same feeling I had with Buffalo a few years ago. They're . . . the RIGHT players." The players in question were Rob Niedermayer, Steve Thomas and Sandis Ozolinsh (acquired a couple of months prior). They joined a well-disciplined Anaheim team with a knack for defense and timely scoring.

I was wrong, of course-- or as right as I was about Buffalo. And, of the four players acquired that year, only Rob Niedermayer made it to the second Cup run. His game evolved in the intervening years, probably at Carlyle's request. He stared down some of the best players in the NHL, and owned them on the defensive boards as he had once owned the puck on the offensive boards. But he lifted the Cup that year, taking it from his brother, and later holding it with Pahlsson, the only other forward who could vividly recall 2003's defeat.

A week ago, a tweet from Darren Dreger of TSN read: "Rob Niedermayer isn't returning to Anaheim. Teams don't believe it, hence there isn't as much interest as there should be."

Daniel, with the expected budget for the year depleted, we may have seen the last of Rob NIedermayer. What has he meant to this team? And what has he meant to you, as a fan?

Robbie has been invaluable to the team. If it wasn't for him, Moen and Pahlsson, I don't think we win the Cup in 2007. He plays hard every shift, and he isn't afraid to go into the tough areas, make hits and win pucks. As I have joked on many occasions, "When the puck goes into a corner, a Niedermayer comes out with it." More importantly, I don't see anyone filling his skates anytime soon. Carter and Miller are average checkers, and neither of them have Robbie's hands. People forget that he came into the league as a scorer, but accepted his role as a checker. Carter and Miller will not provide that same timely scoring.

Robbie made our checking line not only defensively responsible but also a legitimate scoring threat. I ask you, was there anything better than seeing a team's top line hemmed up in their zone for a 40-second shift, only to give up a goal to our checking line? It was so demoralizing; you could see the confidence drain from the opposition's bench. More than that, Robbie brought a lunch box attitude to the rink, and he showed, as Marchant will continue to show, that a diligent role player can be vital to a team's success.

As a fan, I'll miss the pride I had in that line. They're all gone now. I loved watching Robbie forecheck; he was really an artist. He finished every check, and the way he worked the puck from skate to stick, from skate to teammate or the way he'd get a D-man so twisted you thought that dude was listening to too much Keith Sweat.

Just as important though, I remember that 2003 Cup run. That run is important to me as a hockey fan because it justified my loyalty to the Ducks and made haters across the country accept that, even if we were created as Disney's marketing gimmick, we still played hard hockey. I'm a sentimental dude, and Robbie sticking it out through both runs was just magical. He will always be associated with some of my best Ducks memories. He may not have always made the most amazing plays, but he perfected the necessary and mundane tasks of the game and made me a better, more knowledgeable fan. Robbie's efforts helped create the playoff expectations we now have in Anaheim. If you don't miss him, I don't think you're a Ducks fan.

I know there are some people who are going to say his effectiveness waned this season and that I'm once again displaying my bias for the '93 Draft class. To that I say, right on both counts.

The shutdown line looked pretty bad this year, but when Carlyle asked them to score more, Robbie did it, potting more goals than his last two empty-net-scoring-filled-seasons combined. He still faced the tough competition (according to Behind The Net, the toughest of any player on the Anaheim roster), but he found a way to do exactly what his coach wanted.

And that's Rob Niedermayer to me. He does everything the coach asks of him, even if it means doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well, even if it means letting his skill set fall into disuse and even if it means tanking his stats in a contract year while playing for a team whose games the other teams don't watch.

He deserved better than this. For staying here. For luring his brother here. For being whatever we needed him to be. I'll miss that attitude.

As a fan, I don't need a player who loves Southern California. I don't need a player who's happy to see me and sign autographs. I don't need a player who's active in the community and a friend to local charities. In fact, a player could probably be a despicable human being, and it wouldn't concern me. Because that's external to our relationship: him playing hockey while I watch it. In that respect, nobody trumped the Shutdown Line. They had the "showing up for work" stat cornered. And it troubles me to see all three of them put out in the cold.

I suppose I should blame the realities of the market, and not Murray, that I should imagine him in his office reciting a speech similar to the one in the movie Miracle: "How do I cut this kid? He's done everything I've asked." And then feel as if both of us are sad that Pahlsson is in Columbus, Moen is in Montreal and Robbie is headed elsewhere. But as I've said before, I don't automatically side with the guy still cashing the checks that say 'Ducks.' This entire line deserved better than this.

...oh, and so did Beauchemin.


Joe said...

I still think Pahlsson leaving was inexcusable on ANA's part. Unless he simply didn't want to stay, as I told Earl at the time, if you can keep him for anywhere under 3M, you do it. He may not be popular within the more casual parts of the Ducks fanbase, but the fact that guys like him are there is part of what allows you to build that fanbase. You may not see many Pahlsson jerseys sold, but you'll see more jerseys sold in general because he's making that team more successful.

Giving up that shutdown line, plus Pronger, with only one more year (probably) of Niedermayer... I think Murray would do well to remember that it isn't just putting goals in the opponent's net that is important, but making sure they stay out of your own.

Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more. It's going to be sad not seeing a single face from the checking line that once was the best in the league. It's a darn shame. I realize it's a business, but it still sucks.

Anaheim Calling said...

@Joe. Pahlsson was very popular. He and Giguere were the longest tenured Ducks this year, having been with the team since '01. I know fans who are only semi-knowledgeable that own FOUR Pahlsson jerseys each. It wasn't just Earl who fell in love with him.

Pahlsson wanted to try free agency, but I don't see why Murray didn't try to match Columbus' offer. I think he's terrified of over(or under)valuing players. He doesn't have the shakedown artist mentality that Burke had.

@mR. BlUe. It's going to be a different team in October, and probably again next October. Hopefully the business will be good to us, and we can re-sign Ryan during the year and stock up on free agents next offseason.