NHL PREVIEWS : Odds Are, They're Mightier This Year : Ducks: Team is younger, faster, more talented, but Cup is still out of reach for Kariya, Kilger and company.


Leave it to Mighty Duck Coach Ron Wilson to find bulletin board material on the Internet.

Wilson might be the NHL's most computer-literate coach, and if he thinks the Ducks are being disparaged in cyberspace, he's apt to print it out and post it outside the dressing room.

Stanley Cup odds: Mighty Ducks 80-1.

"No one thinks we can do anything," Wilson said Friday, looking at a Las Vegas oddsmaker's list that picked Tampa Bay and the Ducks just above the Ottawa Senators, last at 200-1. "I'm not so much looking at the odds, I'm looking at them thinking we're the second-worst team in the league. We feel we're better than eight or nine of those teams."

His own odds on the Ducks?

"Two to one," he said, then laughed.

The Ducks are hardly Cup contenders, and it might still be a bit of a stretch for them to hope to make the playoffs in their third season now that Colorado has joined the Western Conference. But they will open the season Monday at Winnipeg with a team that is younger, faster and more talented than before.

Watching last year's star rookie, Paul Kariya, 20, play on a line centered by rookie Chad Kilger, 18, during the exhibition season, Wilson tried to check his excitement.

"You don't want to order the rings yet, but you see bits and pieces of what we have lying ahead for us as a franchise," he said.

For now, though, they still have a franchise with only one player who has scored 20 goals in an NHL season, center Bob Corkum.

They lost one of their few proven scorers when center Stephan Lebeau decided to play in Switzerland this year. And they have the league's two-time defending worst power play, as well as the worst penalty-killing record last season.

"Penalty-killing is a matter of working hard and sacrificing, and we didn't do what we had to last year," Wilson said. "The power play has to do with skill level. It's like taking a baseball team with a bunch of guys who don't hit home runs and saying, 'OK, hit home runs.'

"If you have players who can't do that, you have to chip away and do other things, play hit-and-run. But now we're starting to get home-run hitters in the lineup. It's a matter of patience."

The Ducks aren't a mature team yet, and inexperienced players will carry heavy responsibilities, including defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky, who showed flashes of remarkable potential last season as a rookie but is just as likely to get frustrated and falter.

Kilger, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound center with a scoring touch, had a brilliant exhibition season, with four goals and 10 points in eight games, but will need to go through the same adjustments Kariya and Tverdovsky did before him.

Kariya established himself during last season's shortened schedule and almost ranks as a veteran, despite having played only 47 NHL games.

He had 18 goals and 39 points-- the only rookie to lead his team in scoring--and was better than ever this exhibition season. With eight goals and 15 points in eight games, Kariya was the NHL's second-leading scorer in the exhibition season, trailing only Philadelphia's Mark Recchi, who had 20 points.

"It's preseason and it's over," Kariya said. "You're playing against teams that don't play their regulars. But I think we all feel really confident here with what we added last year and now Chad. Our team's fast, and the new rules are going to help."

As for his own development: "Last year I didn't feel like a rookie, but that's a label people put on you," Kariya said. "I don't feel any different other than I feel I'm a better player than I was last year."

The Ducks have come a long way since the first season, as the five players left from the expansion draft will attest.

"Oddly enough, I was thinking that today when guys were taking shots on me," said goaltender Guy Hebert. "Not a lot of guys who were here our first year are left. I look around and I think we're going to have such a fast team that with the new obstruction rules, we should be cheering instead of complaining. It might actually be in our favor."

After two seasons of depending on Hebert to make spectacular saves while hoping somebody would knock in a goal or two, the Ducks have more options this season, with Kariya, Kilger and other youngsters such as Valeri Karpov and Steve Rucchin, as well as Todd Krygier and Mike Sillinger, both picked up in trades last season. They're also hoping for more from first-year standouts such as Corkum, Joe Sacco, and Garry Valk, now in checking roles.

"We never knew who was going to score goals for us the first year," said defenseman Bobby Dollas. "I'm pretty excited right now. I think we're going to have one of the fastest teams in the league. It's exciting to see a lot of young talent coming of age."

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