Off-season After three seasons of tinkering and toying with the roster, general manager Matt Gledhill finally guided the Mighty Ducks into the playoffsâ€¦where the team was promptly defeated by its rival, the Los Angeles Kings, in five games. The first-round ouster was made more agonizing by the fact that the Ducks went into 2003 Entry Draft in Nashville with no picks in the first two rounds. Toss in a relatively quiet spin on the free agent market, and you have yourself the recipe for an irritated fan base and a frustrated GM. Management Sub-par. Mediocre. That's how Gledhill describes his own performance at the draft and in free agency, respectively. A bit overly critical? Probably. Although Gledhill typically takes pride in his ability to find quality prospects late in the draft, there's no denying that the deck is stacked against you when you aren't scheduled to make your first selection until late in the 3rd round. Judging by his team's needs, Gledhill did well to acquire big stay-at-homer Kurt Sauer from Columbus for a pair of picks (3rd, 5th). As for the GM's wisdom in selecting late-round gambles Jiri Drtina and Patrick Koslow, the jury's still out. That said, the worst case scenario is that Drtina and Koslow fade into nothingness, along with 90% of the other players drafted on Day Two. Likewise, Gledhill didn't do anything particularly right in free agency, nor did he do anything particularly wrong. Out went Espen Knutsen and Murray Baron, and in came Brad May and Sean Brown, making the bottom of the roster tougher, cheaper, and a little younger. YAWN. From a fan's point of view, all that matters is that Brad May isn't Rod Brind'Amour and Sean Brown isn't Scott Stevens. Sure, little moves add up, but the guy sitting in Section 318 doesn't want to hear that his team isn't spending the cash to keep up with the Joneses (or the Quains). Coaching Exit Bill Barber. Enter John Tortorella. The Ducks didn't exactly replace Toe Blake with Scotty Bowman. However, it's hard not to like the fire Tortorella brings to the rink on a nightly basis. On the ice, the Ducks have enough leaders to take some of the pressure off of "Torts". The new coach's main job will be to maintain focus over the course of 82 games. Finances This is the part where Gledhill argues with the guy in Section 318 and insists that the Ducks ARE spending the cash to keep up with the Joneses (or the Quains). The Ducks will likely start the 2003-04 season with a payroll in the neighborhood of $43 million, and a bank balance of $20.4 million. At the start of the 2002-03 season, the team's fiscal model dictated that the Ducks needed to make the second round of the playoffs in order to break even. This season, the team will stand to lose somewhere around $10 million if it doesn't make it past the second round. What changed? Sami Kapanen and Sean Burke both received decent raises, but the bulk of the hit comes from carrying Eric Lindros' salary for a full season. Not too complicated, really. Forwards Arrivals â€¢ LW Brad May (UFA) Departures â€¢ C Espen Knutsen (UFA) â€¢ C Greg Classen (UFA) There aren't a whole lot of changes to be found on the Ducks' forward lines heading into the 2003-04 season, especially when you consider that Espen Knutsen's main job in last year's playoffs was opening and closing the door to the bench. "Shampoo" leaves Anaheim as one of the franchise's all-time leading scorers, and heads to Detroit, where he may have more of an opportunity to chip in on offense. Coming to the Pond is winger Brad May, a tough role-player who brings excellent leadership qualities to the bottom lines. Overall, the Ducks appear to have a pretty well-rounded set of forwards, with talent to be found on all four lines. 1st Line: Eric Daze â€“ Eric Lindros - Sami Kapanen The "Two Towers" figure to be a fixture on the first line in the early going. Kapanen will play the role of Frodo at the outset, but it's quite likely he'll spelled by an assortment of hobbits as the season progresses. Obviously, the success of this line will be largely dependent on the ability of Daze and Lindros to physically dominate opponents in the offensive zone. Kapanen's job will be to chase down loose pucks, create opportunities with his speed, and contribute solid all-around play. 2nd Line: Brian Rolston/Jeff Friesen â€“ Bryan Smolinski - Zigmund Palffy The Ducks' second line, oddly enough, features the team's best offensive player in Palffy. Rolston will likely start the season at left wing, if only because Tortorella feels that he's too good to be playing on the third line. The odds of Friesen seeing time on the second line improve if Smolinski clicks with Ziggy. Either way, this line will feature one of the fastest pairs of wingers in the HFNHL. 3rd line: Jeff Friesen/Brian Rolston - Mike Ricci - Scott Mellanby If the first two lines start scoring goals in bunches, Tortorella may be hard-pressed to resist the temptation of forming a super checking line comprising Rolston, Ricci, and Madden. As it stands, Ricci and Mellanby will be charged with making sure opponents have a miserable stay in Orange County, while Friesen will provide some speed and offensive spark to keep other teams wary. 4th line: Brad May - John Madden - Tomas Holmstrom This certainly figures to be one of the better fourth lines in the HFNHL. Madden is a great penalty-killer whose speed and tenacity make him a pain in the ass to play against. Holmstrom plays a tough, grinding game designed to wear opponents out. Plus, he provides some power play depth to boot. The lone newcomer, May, will be heavily relied upon for his intangibles and his ability to inject life into a team with his body and fists. Depth: Mark Rycroft, Patrick Poulin, Todd Fedoruk, Stephen Peat Rycroft is versatile and still pretty young. Fedoruk and Peat are two bruisers capable of contributing on a checking line. Poulin is strictly a spare part whose career is running on borrowed time. On the Horizon This group isn't quite as strong as it was a year ago, but it still boasts several youngsters with top-six talent. At the head of the class is Mike Cammalleri, a product of the University of Michigan who displayed outstanding instincts and scoring ability at the AHL level last season. Jason Pominville has the smarts, speed, and hands to become a goal-scorer at the next level, and the quick release to become a bonafide sniper. It's clichÃ©, but one of the best prospects you've never heard of is Czech Republic native Tomas Plekanec. His size keeps him off of a lot of top prospect lists, but Plekanec's puck skills and hockey sense are top notch. Another player to watch is Hobey Baker candidate Ben Eaves. Son of Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, and brother of Boston College teammate Patrick Eaves, Ben will finish out his college career this season and look to make the transition to the AHL in 2004. Overall Forward Grade: B+ Boasting Madden and Holmstrom on the fourth line, this is undoubtedly one of the deepest groups of forwards in the HFNHL. That said, largely the same group struggled to score goals on a consistent basis last season. It's up to Lindros, Palffy and Daze to lead the way. Defence Arrivals â€¢ Sean Brown (RFA) â€¢ Kurt Sauer (trade) Departures â€¢ Murray Baron (UFA) â€¢ Jason Marshall (UFA) â€¢ Greg Hawgood (UFA) As with the forwards, the Ducks did little this offseason other than to slightly retool their bottom pairing on the blueline. Murray Baron was quite popular in the locker room, so his leadership will be missed. However, the addition of Sean Brown, much like the addition of Brad May, gives the team's defensive corps a little extra snarl. 1st Unit: Al MacInnis - Kenny Jonsson Back for what could be his last season in Anaheim, team captain Al MacInnis figures to be a candidate for the Norris Trophy when all is said and done. It will be interesting to see how heavily Tortorella relies on MacInnis on a nightly basis, given that the veteran is the skater the Ducks can least afford to lose to injury. Now in his fourth season wearing the teal and purple, Kenny Jonsson plays a solid all-around game and moves the puck well in transition. Tortorella hopes to get the Swede to play with more of an edge this season. 2nd Unit: Brian Rafalski - Richard Matvichuk This is probably the Ducks' most fundamentally sound pairing. Brian Rafalski is an accomplished puck-mover who compensates for his lack of size with his exceptional hockey sense. He figures to log a ton of minutes on special teams, particularly on the power play. Meanwhile, Richard Matvichuk will play a vital role on the penalty kill. Matvichuk is easily the team's best defensive defenseman, and probably its toughest as well. 3rd Unit: Tom Poti - Sean Brown/Kurt Sauer Tom Poti's physical tools scream "future Norris Trophy winner." Could this be the year that he takes a significant step towards that achievement? No one has ever doubted Poti's ability. Many have doubted Poti's commitment to becoming a better two-way defenseman. On a team lacking true defensive blueliners, Poti will be expected to pick up his play in his own end. Sean Brown, with some help from Kurt Sauer, will be charged with covering for Poti's frequent forays into the offensive zone. Depth: Lance Ward, Dennis Seidenberg Lance Ward enjoyed some success early in his career, but seems to have lost his way to the point that he's seen spot duty as a forward. Conversely, the Ducks have very high hopes for Dennis Seidenberg. The young German clearly has the ability to become a top-four defenseman, but needs to bulk up a bit. On the Horizon: While the Ducks' farm system probably isn't as deep on defense as it is at forward, most of the blueline prospects are either HFNHL-ready, or very close to it. Sauer and Seidenberg have already been mentioned, but Marek Zidlicky is another defenseman that figures to challenging for ice time with the big boys very soon. While Zidlicky, 26, is a native of the Czech Republic, he's made his mark over the past three seasons as the best defenseman in Finland's SM-Liiga. Another European the Ducks have high hopes for is former Djurgardens defenseman Niklas Kronwall. As with a number of the team's prospects, there are some size questions concerning Kronwall. That said, the young Swede plays a bit of a physical game, which compliments his offensive gifts nicely. University of Maine alum Doug Janik doesn't do anything spectacularly, but he does play a smooth defensive game similar to Sauer. Overall Defensive Grade: B+ Few teams in the HFNHL are capable of trotting out a group like MacInnis, Rafalski, Poti, and Jonsson at the point on the power play. However, only MacInnis and Matvichuk are definites on the penalty kill, signifying a bit of a weak spot on the blueline. This unit is upper-echelon offensively, but might only be middle-of-the-road defensively. IN GOAL Arrivals â€¢ NONE! Departures â€¢ Cody Rudkowsky (UFA) One of two All-Stars for the Ducks last season (the other being MacInnis), Sean Burke returns as the undisputed starting goaltender for the 2003-04 season. Once again, Burke will be expected to remain among the league leaders in save percentage throughout the 82-game campaign. Returning as the Ducks' backup netminder for the fourth season in a row is Brian Boucher. While "Boosh" is a front-office favorite, the general manager's patience with the Rhode Island native is beginning to wane. If Boucher doesn't make significant progress towards becoming a starter this season, look for management to explore other goaltender-of-the-future options. On the Horizon: Once considered a top-flight prospect, Jean-Marc Pelletier has toiled as an AHL All-Star for the past several seasons. While he still has some upside as a backup at the HFNHL level, one must wonder why he's never taken the next step in his career. In Roman Malek, the Ducks have a goaltender who has absolutely dominated the Czech Extraleague, breaking Dominik Hasek's record for shutouts last season. The team is quite anxious for Malek to make his North American debut. Providing some depth in net are WHLer Tyler Weiman and OHLer Jeff Weber. Weiman has shown some ability to steal games, but his consistency is an issue. Meanwhile, Weber is fighting hard to supplant Paul Drew as the Plymouth Whalers' starting goaltender. So far, his efforts seem to be paying off. The wildcard in the goaltending mix is Patrick Koslow. The young German enjoyed his fair share of hype heading into the 2002-03 season, and did absolutely nothing to live up to it. He needs to resolve his focus both on and off the ice. Overall Goaltending Grade: B+ Completes the B+ hat-trick. As with the forwards and defensemen, an argument can be made for giving the goaltenders an A- grade. Certainly, Sean Burke's worth an A- on his own. The B+ hangs on Boucher's shoulders. OUTLOOK Even Yoda would have trouble with this one. On paper, the Ducks are a bonafide contender. The one team in the Western Conference that can probably claim a better group of skaters is St. Louis. After the Blues, there's little margin separating the Ducks' skaters from those of the Sharks and the Kings. That said, the Ducks feel that, in a seven-game series, their goaltending is as good, or better than, any other upper-echelon Western Conference team except for Colorado (Brodeur). That's on paper. Unfortunately, hockey isn't as straightforward a game as rock-paper-scissors. You can't just throw out rock-paper-paper and expect to win your division, let alone your conference. The Ducks have the firepower and the depth to be competitive on a nightly basis. However, they can only go as far as their big guns take them. Prediction: Loss in Western Conference Finals.