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Two stars leave Ducks in limbo

The first time a defenseman sprains a knee or pulls a muscle during the Ducks’ training camp, Scott Niedermayer’s name will come up.

The moment the Ducks’ power play flags or they play a few flat shifts that hint at a post-Stanley Cup championship letdown, Niedermayer will be prescribed as the remedy.

Defending their title will be difficult enough for the Ducks without having to dodge an elephant at center ice, which is what Niedermayer became when he said last week he had not decided whether he’s ready to retire.

There’s no reason to believe Niedermayer is anything but sincerely conflicted about his future.

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The smooth-skating defenseman is a class act, universally respected for his uncomplaining attitude, quiet leadership and ability to make his teammates better. His success at every level, from junior hockey through the world championships, NHL and the Olympics, is unique and entirely understandable.

Niedermayer, who turned 34 in August -- a bit more than two months after he was voted the most valuable player in the playoffs -- said last week he wished he knew what he wanted to do.

“The last thing I want is to be a distraction or whatever to the work of the team that’s going to be hitting the ice,” he said.

But that’s exactly what he will be.

He didn’t report to the Honda Center for physical exams Monday, and he won’t join his teammates when they start practicing today, and every day he will be conspicuous by his absence.

Well-intentioned though he may be, his indecision will hurt the Ducks’ chance to become the first team to win consecutive Cup titles since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

General Manager Brian Burke hasn’t imposed a deadline on Niedermayer, who has two years and $13.5 million on his contract, or right wing Teemu Selanne, who became an unrestricted free agent after his superb, 48-goal season. Burke thinks it’s better to leave the door open and hope they will skate through at some point.

“Does it make it more difficult? Yes. But there’s a prize for patience here,” Burke said.

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“There’s one [other] way to play it: Say, ‘I need to know right now.’ If I called Scott and said I need a decision now, he’d probably say he’s done.

“But if we have patience, the payoff is so large.”

They may be patient and still not get the payoff, another headache to add to a growing pile.

Governed by a salary cap that was designed to legislate parity but seems instead to punish excellence, Burke must carefully count every payroll penny this season. If Selanne or Niedermayer returns, Burke would have to move some bodies and might find it hard to get a good return because he’d be operating from a position of weakness.

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Also, the Ducks have been victimized by the NHL’s absurd decision to open the season in London -- the one in England, not its Canadian namesake. They’ll have to hope that an extra 5,300 travel miles each way won’t turn their legs to jelly after their happy but brief summer vacation.

Then there’s the baggage brought by Todd Bertuzzi, whom Burke signed to replace Selanne. Bertuzzi still faces a civil jury trial for the despicable hit he leveled against Colorado’s Steve Moore in 2004 -- another distraction the Ducks don’t need.

Selanne, 37, still has the legs and the hands to play at an elite level. Like Niedermayer, he may wonder whether he wants to push himself through a long season only to discover that he should have quit while on top.

If he can’t summon the drive that fueled his recovery from knee surgery a few years ago, he might as well stay in the sauna.

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“I talked to him and told him, ‘You know we want you back. You tell me if and when you’re ready,’ ” Burke said. “I’m not going to beg, I’m not going to bribe.”

Burke insisted he hasn’t been hampered by the uncertainty.

“The one phone call we don’t want is the one saying he’s retiring,” Burke said of Niedermayer, repeating a line he has recently adopted as a mantra.

“If he comes back will there be resentment? None. Zero. Because of what he and Teemu contribute and bring, and their personality.”

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The Ducks are quietly hoping that one or both will miss the game and the camaraderie and that Niedermayer will miss his carpool partners -- his brother, Rob, defenseman Chris Pronger and goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Selanne and Niedermayer are living in Orange County, and they’re likely to be subjected to pleas from fans and neighbors, as well as teammates.

The longer they wait, the more unfair it is for them to leave a shred of hope dangling where it might become a crutch.

It’s unfair to the players who showed up Monday and will be on skates today and are ready to move forward toward shaping the Ducks’ future, with all the pitfalls and rewards that await them. Why let an unbecoming exit tarnish two great careers?

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.


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