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Nearly a decade has passed since the NHL crowned back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. The Anaheim Ducks' hopes of ending that streak have taken a number of hits even before the team has gotten on the ice.
The league's 90th season kicks off Saturday when the Ducks meet the Los Angeles Kings at the O2 Arena in London in the 2007 Premiere Series, a two-game set that concludes Sunday.
Anaheim is trying to become the first repeat champion since Detroit in 1997 and '98, but the Ducks look like a much different team than the one that defeated Ottawa in five games to become the first Cup winner from California.
Scott Niedermayer, the team captain and Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, said in June he was mulling retirement and the 34-year-old defenseman was suspended for failing to report to training camp. Veteran forward Teemu Selanne, who scored a team-high 48 goals in the final year of his contract, remains a free agent.
Injuries and defections have also hurt Anaheim. Goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere will not play in London while he recovers from surgery on a sports hernia - the same injury that has sidelined forward Samuel Pahlsson. Former Red Wing Mathieu Schneider, signed as insurance against Niedermayer's possible retirement, broke his left ankle during the Ducks' preseason opener.
Giguere may not play until Anaheim's home opener Oct. 10, while Pahlsson and Schneider are expected to return later in the month.
"We didn't have very many injuries last year at the start of the year, and we were able to kind of play with pretty much the same lineup through the first probably 25, 30 games, and we were able to rattle off a pretty good start to the season," Anaheim's Chris Pronger said. "I think that's going to be imperative for us again to get off to that good start and get some wins under our belt and kind of get that chemistry and that flow that we had going last year."
Anaheim, though, also lost rising star Dustin Penner after failing to match the five-year, $21.25 million offer sheet given to him by Edmonton in July. Penner was second on the team with 29 goals.
Giguere will be replaced by Ilya Bryzgalov and rookie Jonas Hiller, who spent the past four years in Switzerland and made 40 saves Sunday in Anaheim's 5-0 win over Vancouver in its preseason finale.
Los Angeles also features a new look as it hopes to reach the postseason for the first time since 2001-02. In their first season under coach Marc Crawford, the Kings finished with 68 points - one more than last-place Phoenix in the Pacific Division.
Los Angeles will lean heavily on Michael Cammalleri, Alexander Frolov and Anze Kopitar for offense. The trio had 89 of the Kings' 227 goals last season, and Kopitar finished third among rookies with 61 points.
The Kings bolstered their offense by adding veterans Ladislav Nagy and Michal Handzus. Nagy had a career-high 43 assists and 55 points in 80 games last season with Phoenix and Dallas. Handzus recorded eight points in his first eight games with Chicago before a torn ACL ended his season.
On defense, the Kings picked up Brad Stuart from Calgary and Tom Preissing from Ottawa, but neither player is expected to generate more buzz than Jack Johnson.
The third overall selection by Carolina in the 2005 draft, Johnson was dealt to the Kings last year for Eric Belanger and Tim Gleason - a trade that could turn out to be quite lopsided if Johnson lives up to the promise he showed last season at Michigan, where he had 10 multipoint games and set career highs with 16 goals and 23 assists.
Though he didn't register a point in five games with the Kings late last season, Johnson said he hopes to live up to being a Calder Trophy candidate.
"There's going to be an establishing period, pretty much the entire year," he told the Kings' official Web site. "You're there to try to establish yourself and prove to everyone else you belong here, but I'm going to be doing that all year, trying to prove to everybody that I belong here."
Johnson should benefit from playing alongside two of the game's best offensive defensemen in Rob Blake and Lubomir Visnovsky. Heading into his 18th NHL season, Blake is the Kings' all-time scoring leader among defensemen with 152 goals and 311 assists. Visnovsky's 125 points over the last two seasons ties him for third most in the league among blueliners.
Los Angeles used five goaltenders last season, including veterans Mathieu Garon, Sean Burke and Dan Cloutier. None of them are with the team this season. For now, the Kings will go with career backup Jason LaBarbera, journeyman Jean-Sebastien Aubin and 2006 first-round draft pick Jonathan Bernier.
Anaheim was 4-2-2 against Los Angeles in 2006-07, but lost the final three meetings.
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