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Kariya Gives Ducks Reasons to Overachieve : Hockey: Rookie left wing should provide scoring boost to team that usually struggled with offense last season.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Paul Kariya had to wait for the NHL season, and now the Zamboni waits for him.

No matter how grueling the practice, Kariya stays on the ice after the Mighty Ducks leave it, still caught up in the playful perfectionism that makes his debut one of the most anticipated of the shortened NHL season.

With the rink almost to himself, he knocks down airborne pucks with his stick, disappointed if he misses even one. He shoots from one spot, then another, firing piles of pucks into the net. And all the while he is trying new moves, different sleights of stick, any way to elude the defense with his speed and creativity.

The truth of it is, Kariya has stayed on the ice after his teammates wherever he has played, and his ability to continually sharpen and fine-tune his game is one reason he might be even more ready to join the NHL today than he was before the lockout.

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“I used the time to improve the weaknesses I saw in my game during the exhibition season,” said Kariya, 20, who also added a little needed bulk by lifting weights. “I knew the lockout was coming and I used the time wisely. I feel like I’ve improved.”

He added at least one new move to his repertoire--"It’s like having a new toy,” he said--and he has a new stack of videotapes of Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr to emulate.

He and Quebec’s Peter Forsberg are the leading candidates for rookie of the year, but the Ducks had a pretty good rookie year themselves last season, sharing an expansion record with the Florida Panthers by winning 33 games--six more than the Kings.

Despite their success, watching them play was sometimes like watching water freeze. They had a powerless power play--the worst in the NHL--and a lineup of grinders and unproven scorers. But they were true to their talents, succeeding with a blend of physical play and diligent defense. Will they be any different this year?

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“Once every four shifts,” Coach Ron Wilson said, his own excitement slipping through, “you’ll see a big difference when the Kariya-Karpov-Semenov line is on the ice.”

The rest of the team figures to be as workmanlike as ever.

Left wing Kariya and fellow rookie Valeri Karpov, 23, claimed spots on the team’s first line almost from the day they put on Duck uniforms in September, and Kariya led the team in scoring during the exhibition season with three goals and five assists in eight games.

The rookies will be centered by Russian veteran Anatoli Semenov, whose European playmaking blends well with the finesse of Karpov, another Russian, and Kariya, a Canadian whose playing style and taste for borscht have made him the line’s honorary Russian.

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The focus will be on Kariya, but the Ducks’ success in their second season probably depends on their ability to blend the skill of Kariya, Karpov and, eventually, talented rookie defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky without losing the defensive style they relied on before.

“I think it’s very important for us to play the same way we did last year, especially early in the season,” team captain Randy Ladouceur said. “We’re not going to win wide-open games. We’ve got some new players who improved our skill level, but our bread-and-butter is playing good solid defense in our own end and grinding it out. It’s going to be very important early on for us not to slack off defensively.

“With the season set up the way it is, if you get off to an 8-2 or 7-3 start in your first 10 games, you’ve gone a long way toward making the playoffs. But if you start 2-8, 3-7, you’ve got a lot of ground to make up in a short period of time.

“Regardless of how many games we play this year, we’re still a second-year team, that’s all there is to it. A lot of teams are going to be a little more ready for us than last year. And with this schedule, we’re not going to have the luxury of teams having an off-night and saying, ‘We’ll give them this one, there’s plenty of time to make it up later.’ ”

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With their grinding style, the Ducks might have an early advantage over teams that rely more on finesse, which takes longer to regain after a layoff.

Their goaltending situation might put them in good stead too, because their backup, Mikhail Shtalenkov, is not far behind No. 1 Guy Hebert. With the pace of the season, backups might be forced to play more games than usual. Wilson is comfortable alternating goalies for stretches anyway.

The 48-game season doesn’t bother Wilson, because the longer the season is, the more “the wheat is separated from the chaff,” he said.

“I like it,” Wilson said. “I would dislike it if I was a Stanley Cup contender, or perceived to be one. It might work against good teams. If you have a little slump, a couple of injuries, you don’t have much time to make up ground. Teams like Detroit or Vancouver could have one or two injuries and watch their season go down the toilet.

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“But if you play great the first 15 games, then you can sit back and play .500 and be in the playoffs. I’m not sticking my neck out and saying we’re a playoff team yet, because other teams last year had off years. The Los Angeles Kings and Winnipeg Jets are both teams that are better than they played last year.”

Besides adding skill up front by signing Kariya and Karpov--two of the last rookies to reap the benefits of soaring salaries before the entry-level salary cap took effect--the Ducks added a power-play specialist last summer by acquiring defenseman Tom Kurvers from the New York Islanders for winger Troy Loney, the team’s first captain.

One indication of management’s confidence in the rookies was the trade of Terry Yake to Toronto just before the lockout began. Yake led the team in scoring with 52 points last season, but he fell down the depth chart in the exhibition season.

A couple of returning players Wilson is putting a lot of faith in are center Bob Corkum, who had a career year with 23 goals and 28 assists last season, and speedy right wing Joe Sacco, who after a slow start scored 15 goals in the second half of the season, many on breakaways. The team will start the season without last year’s third-leading scorer, left wing Garry Valk, who has a sprained ligament in his left knee.

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Most eyes are going to be on Kariya, though, especially in Canada, where he is already a hero after Canada’s heartbreaking shootout loss to Sweden cost them Olympic gold, but was followed by a victory in the World Championships in May. Kariya was chosen the outstanding forward of the tournament, even though there were plenty of NHL players on hand.

His pro debut would have been in his hometown of Vancouver under the original NHL schedule, but now comes on what to him is hallowed ground, Northlands Coliseum, once the home of Gretzky and the Oiler dynasty.

“This is the first time I’ve been here, but I saw the statue coming in,” he said after passing the famous Gretzky tribute. “It’s pretty amazing to have a statue while you’re still playing. It’s a testament to what he’s done.”


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