Excitement, and trepidation, felt in Ducks' locker room

CHICAGO -- This is where giddy anticipation collides head-on with sober reality.

Like those reality television programs, in which the survivors have the opportunity to share in great wealth but the losers are voted off the island -- the Anaheim Ducks are about to engage in their own version of that game.

In a matter of days, the defending Stanley Cup champions will welcome back defending playoff MVP and Hall of Fame-bound defenseman Scott Niedermayer. Those left in the Ducks' dressing room will instantly revel in the feeling of once again being considered Stanley Cup contenders.

But the catch -- and it's a big one -- is not everyone will get to share in that prize. Someone, perhaps more than one, will be gone.

As we speak, Ducks general manager Brian Burke is looking to move at least one player to clear the necessary space under the salary cap to allow Niedermayer to rejoin the lineup.

Perhaps it will be veteran defenseman Sean O'Donnell or young defenseman Kent Huskins or talented center Andy McDonald or key offseason acquisition Mathieu Schneider.

"I think everyone's handling it really well," Schneider said before the Ducks' game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday. "I mean, probably half the team has been mentioned in rumors that I've seen over a 48-hour period. And, nine times out of 10, in my experience, the rumors never happen. It's the ones you don't hear about that end up happening. So, we'll see."

The Hawks were one of a number of teams rumored to be interested in Schneider's services. When Chicago called up center Dave Bolland, the 32nd pick in the 2004 draft, for Friday's game, even though it had healthy forwards Yanic Perreault and Sergei Samsonov ready to go, it looked like the stage was set for a deal to take place.

It didn't, meaning another day of waiting and wondering for all concerned.

"It's tough," McDonald said. "I was sitting at dinner yesterday and thinking, 'Is one of these guys, even me, going to be gone, one of these guys around the table going to be gone in a day or so?' Like I said, it's not easy to deal with."

The Ducks' situation is unique. Living with the threat of a trade or the rumors of possible deals comes with the territory in pro sports. But this isn't a threat or a move that can be put off with inspired play.

Anaheim played probably its best game of an uneven season after learning Niedermayer would be returning to the lineup in the next week to 10 days. But regardless of what this team does, the reality remains the same: One or more of these players, most of whom shared in the greatest moment of a hockey player's life by winning the Stanley Cup last June, will be gone. End of story.

"It's almost like an auction," Burke told ESPN.com Friday. "The key is to talk to everyone, don't rush and make the deal that you want."

Burke was scheduled to travel with the team to Nashville and work the phones Saturday and Sunday.

Because Niedermayer is under contract for this season and next for a total of $13.5 million (he will be paid on a pro-rated basis for the rest of this season once he rejoins the team), the Ducks need to clear less than $1 million off their books for 2008-09. But Burke has other considerations, including having enough money in the offseason to sign restricted free agent Corey Perry to a new deal.

It means Schneider has been the name most often mentioned as the player most likely to be dealt. Schneider signed a two-year deal worth $11.25 million in the offseason and represents an attractive asset for many teams looking for offensive help from the back end. Schneider's contract does not include a no-trade clause, and he understood this dynamic might present itself.

Still, having the opportunity to play alongside Niedermayer and Chris Pronger was one of the incentives that led him to sign with Anaheim in the first place, adding another layer of potential irony to the situation.

"I never said anything to anyone earlier, but when the team was over in England, I got together with Scotty, and I told him if you decide to come back that I would love to play with him to get that opportunity and all I want to do is win another Stanley Cup, and that's one of the major reasons that I signed here," Schneider said.

"I wanted him to feel comfortable. Like I said to him, 'I'm sure you're not going to base your decision on how I feel, but, at the same time, I want you to feel like if, you come into that room and we're playing together, that there's nothing but positive things.' And I've felt that way from the get-go. If I am here, we can have probably one of the best defense corps ever to play in this league, and to do it under a salary cap would be a pretty amazing feat. Right now, we're just kind of going, playing. You can't worry about that stuff."

And so, these players must focus on the task at hand: trying to get the Ducks back on track. But they must temper their excitement of Niedermayer's return with the notion that they might not be part of it in a day or two.

"Until you get that call to come in the office, we're all Anaheim Ducks, and to be a member of this team and have Scotty come back, I am super excited," O'Donnell said. "I'm not thinking at all about what could possibly happen. As of right now, and as of hopefully for the next year and a half until my contract's done, I'm going to be a member of the Ducks. To be in this locker room and have Scotty come back, it's a thrill, because he's that good a player."

When asked whether there might be some resentment in the dressing room when Niedermayer returns, McDonald started to answer before the question was fully posed.

"No. No. No. None. There's not going to be 1 percent of anyone thinks, 'What if,'" McDonald said. "You can't blame Scotty for any of this. He did what he did, and we respected his decision."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.