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NHL Report: December 14, 2006

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So what really happened to Chris Pronger in Edmonton and why the heck did he want to leave the Oilers so badly?


He won't provide answers publicly, of course, and neither will anyone else in the know. Some day, it'll all come out, we figure. Some day, someone, somewhere, will report what people already whisper privately -- that Pronger got himself into some hot water with an extracurricular activity and his wife found out and demanded that the family move out of Edmonton to some far-away city or else.


And that's all I would like to say about this mysterious issue that Pronger et al would like to keep private. I also must say this, though: The Oilers' loss, clearly, has been a huge gain for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, or Ducks, or whatever you'd like to call them these days.


Actually, they dropped the Mighty part of their nicknames a while ago, but this is when that adjective should be included to describe them. See, they're the best team in the NHL at the moment.


After 34 games, the Ducks have amassed a league-high 56 points and have won five in a row. And they have prevailed in 12 of their first 15 road games, a feat no other NHL team in history has accomplished.


And make no mistake about this: The Ducks would not be enjoying this lofty status if not for Pronger's contributions.


"The only way to say it is that Chris has been his usual great self," said Dave Farrish, the Ducks' assistant coach. "He gives us so much."


I have a confession. I thought Anaheim general manager Brian Burke was getting fleeced by Edmonton counterpart Kevin Lowe in the off-season when he traded forward Joffrey Lupul, defenceman Ladislav Smid, a first-round pick in 2007, a second-round pick in 2008 and a conditional draft pick for Pronger.


I figured Pronger was on the down side of the hill. I watched him struggle in his most recent efforts with Team Canada and I concluded that his advanced age, banged-up body and personal problems were affecting him and I deemed him unworthy of such a package from the Ducks.


I was wrong (clip and save).


Pronger, at 33, is an all-star again and, with six goals and 28 assists, he's the highest-scoring defenceman in the NHL.


Still, remarkably, he doesn't even rank as the Ducks' top defenceman this season. That distinction goes to 34-year-old captain Scott Niedermayer.


There are those, actually, who believe Niedermayer has been the best player in the NHL this season. That's no slight against, say, Pronger or Sid The Kid or anyone else. It's just that Niedermayer, honestly, has been remarkable. Not only does he have 29 points (24 assists) after 34 games, but opponents have seldom scored this season when he's been on the ice.


Combine the performances of Niedermayer and Pronger with the offensive production of Teemu Selanne (third in the league in scoring with 19 goals and 24 assists) and the brilliant goaltending of Jean-Sebastien Giguere (nine straight victories), and you're talking about a veteran team that is conjuring up images of -- okay, we'll say it -- a Stanley Cup championship.


"We certainly like our team," Farrish said matter-of-factly. "I think we've had a very good first third of the season and we'd like to think we'll continue this."


Niedermayer, who is leading the league in all-star votes from fans, and Pronger "seem to be getting better with age," Farrish said. "They know how to maintain their condition. They have the skill level to avoid physical contact when they wish. Their raw abilities, their experience and their physical conditions are helping us every night."


Pronger is paired with another veteran, Ottawa native Sean O'Donnell, while Niedermayer's defence partner is Francois Beauchemin.


"So we're getting more scoring from our defence this season," Farrish said, "because we have two sets of defencemen now who can generate offence."


The Ducks' third defence pair, Shane O'Brien and Joe DiPenta, "don't get the recognition," Farrish said, "but they give us solid minutes, too, and they're dependable."


At 36, Selanne is enjoying his finest season since he scored 76 goals with Winnipeg in 1992-93. His linemates, no-names Andy McDonald and Chris Kunitz, have suddenly turned into legitimate offensive threats, largely because of his creativity.


"Hockey's fun again for me," Selanne said. "We know we can go out every night and win, and sometimes we can win with ease. We have guys like Chris Pronger making life easier for us."


That's cocky, yes, but it's also the truth. And, if you're a fan of the Oilers, the truth really hurts.





•Canadian players no longer seem to suffering from scoring problems.


Heading into Thursday night's games, in fact, 20 players had scored 35 points or more this season -- and the majority, 12, were Canadian.


That included the league leader, Sidney Crosby, who registered six points in the Pittsburgh Penguins' 8-4 triumph over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night.


Crosby, only 19, continues to impress with his maturity.


"Scoring is nice," he said, "but winning is better."


That's the right thing to say, of course, and companies will keep lining up in hopes of getting him to endorse their products.





Jeremy Roenick, at 36, seems to be done in the NHL.


The Phoenix Coyotes don't plan to use the former star any more and if they could find a club to take him off their hands in a trade, they would.


Roenick has enjoyed a first-rate career. Whether he's a Hall of Famer, however, is questionable.


Which reminds me: Which active players do you think would make it to the Hall of Fame if they retired tomorrow?


A couplehave been mentioned in this column, probably, in Niedermayer and Pronger. Brendan Shanahan, who is somehow among the top 10 in scoring even as we speak, is another.


But who else?


Send me your nominees and your thoughts and I'll publish the results in my NHL Report next week.



marty.york@metronews.ca

 
 
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