Ducks Believe Rucchin Is Fine Centerpiece for First Line

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Do Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, the Mighty Ducks' all-world wingers, deserve a first-class center? The Ducks say they already have one, and they put their money where their mouth is Tuesday by signing Steve Rucchin to a four-year contract worth $9.2 million.

The Ducks do not place Rucchin in the same league, in salary or skill, as the top free-agent centers, Ron Francis and Doug Gilmour. The Ducks do, however, value Rucchin's ability to draw out the best in Kariya and Selanne.

"I don't know what a No. 1 center is," General Manager Pierre Gauthier said. "I guess there are guys that have better stats than Steve, but he's done very well playing with those two guys.

"Not everybody can play with star players. He's a good complement to them."

Rucchin, 27, scored 53 points last season, the same as Gilmour and second to Selanne on the Ducks. In 1996-97, when the Ducks signed future Hall of Famer Jari Kurri in the hope he could center Kariya and Selanne, Rucchin reclaimed the position, helping spark the team to its only playoff appearance in five seasons. Selanne ranked second and Kariya third in the NHL scoring that season, and Rucchin contributed 67 points.

The signing reflected the Disney sports philosophy of spurning expensive free agents but rewarding talented young players. The Angels, like the Ducks, have neglected marquee free agents. The Angels, however, have signed young stars such as Tim Salmon and Darin Erstad to long-term contracts.

And, within the past year, the Ducks have signed Kariya, Selanne and Rucchin to long-term deals worth a combined $42.7 million.

"It's the right thing to do," Gauthier said. "The way you build teams is the way we're doing it here. You take care of your own players, develop them and pay them according to the market.

"My company wants to win as much as any owner in the league. But they want to win the right way, and that's the way I believe it should be done."

That philosophy, of course, did not preclude the contract dispute that resulted in Kariya's holdout the first 10 weeks of last season.

"They use the leverage when they have it," said Rucchin's agent, Pat Morris. "You can't help but pay Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, and you can't argue with Steve's contribution."

The Ducks manufactured and distributed a statistic that showed Rucchin was one of seven centers last season to play in 60 games, score 50 points, average 20 minutes per game, win the majority of his faceoffs and post a plus rating. Francis and Gilmour met those criteria, too, as did Eric Lindros, Adam Oates, Keith Primeau and Steve Yzerman.

The more relevant numbers, perhaps, were age and salary. Francis, 35, scored 87 points last season and signed a four-year, $20-million contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. Gilmour, also 35, signed a three-year, $18-million deal with the Chicago Blackhawks.

"If giving $6 million a year to 35-year-old players is the solution, I'm sorry, I don't want to be a part of it," Gauthier said in July. "That's totally ridiculous."

Rucchin will earn $1.95 million this season, $2.05 million next season, $2.15 million in 2000-01 and $2.55 million in 2001-02. He also will receive a $500,000 signing bonus. He earned $350,000 last season, his fourth in the NHL.

Rucchin enjoyed playing in Anaheim so much, Morris said, that he opted not to file for arbitration--and the one- or two-year contract that would follow--in the hope of signing a longer deal. When this contract expires, Rucchin will be one year away from unrestricted free agency.

Selanne, like Rucchin, is signed through the 2001-02 season. But Kariya's contract expires after this season, forcing the Ducks to face another holdout next season.

Has Gauthier discussed a new contract with Kariya's agent, Don Baizley?

"We've touched on it," Gauthier said.

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