Although at times last year they did not have a roof over their heads and had to schedule "home" games in Quebec, New York and Toronto, the Philadelphia Flyers finished in first place in the expansion division. This year they will have a roof to play under—or at least the Ben Franklin Institute says the Spectrum's top will not collapse or fly away as it did a year ago—but the Flyers will not finish first again.
The reason is that Philadelphia does not have a single consistent goal-scoring threat. The Flyers scored only 173 goals last season (the second lowest total in the NHL), and they had only two regular players who scored 20 goals, Leon Rochefort and Bill Sutherland.
They won their division because 23-year-old Goaltenders Bernie Parent and Doug Favell permitted the opposition only 179 goals (the third best record in the NHL), because the young defensemen Joe Watson and Ed Van Impe played well, and because the Flyers hit.
October 13, 1968
Rochefort, an underrated player, is back, but Sutherland was lost in the draft. Rookie Center Ron Buchanan was drafted from Boston, and if the Flyers have their usual luck with a Bruins' reject, Buchanan may score 25 goals. Brit Selby, the NHL's Rookie of the Year three years ago with Toronto, has recovered from all his leg fractures and could be one of the West's best forwards. The Flyers also have promoted the line of Andre Lacroix, Simon Nolet and Jean-Guy Gendron from Quebec. "They scored 114 goals down there last year," said Bud Poile, the general manager. "I'll be happy if they score 70 for us." So will Coach Keith Allen.
Conclusion: the Flyers will be as strong as they were a year ago, but not strong enough because the rest of the league has improved.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
In his letter welcoming the Kings to training camp, Owner Jack Kent Cooke proclaimed: "Having proved to all the doubting Thomases that we are National Hockey League caliber, we can start where we left off last season: the best team in the Western Division."
The Kings didn't exactly prove they were the best team in the West last year, finishing second by a point to Philadelphia and losing to Minnesota in the Stanley Cup quarter-finals. But they were a surprise, especially to the established clubs, which they beat 10 times and tied twice.
On paper, and on the ice in their gaudy purple-and-gold uniforms, the Kings certainly do not look as formidable as Minnesota or St. Louis. They need a left wing desperately and, having failed to trade for or develop one, Coach Red Kelly experimented with a pair of defensemen at camp. As a result, the defense—one of the weakest in the West—is weaker still. Goalie Terry Sawchuk, 38, seems chastened—but not necessarily revitalized—by the fact that the Kings left him unprotected in the draft and tried all summer to unload his $50,000 contract. Wayne Rutledge, who played well in 45 games last season, reported overweight, but he should again split time with Sawchuk.
Lacking, as it is, in good defensemen, Los Angeles can be expected to give up more than its share of goals, and this puts heavy pressure on the forwards. They were potent last season. Ed Joyal, Bill (Cowboy) Flett and Lowell MacDonald must repeat their good years, and much depends on the outcome of Kelly's search for a left wing.
Essentially the Kings are the same team that started 1967. In the scuffle with clubs that have not stood pat, the "best" in the West could be in trouble.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Whatever else you say about Scotty Bowman, the young coach of the Blues, and his players, they obviously have the deepest, richest suntans in the NHL as the season begins. "We spent a week golfing, fishing and practicing in the Maritimes," said Bowman. "I believe hockey or any sport is at least 70% mental. Keep your players happy, and they'll play for you. Our players are happy."
And they play for Bowman, as they proved last year, coming from last place in December to third in April (only three points behind Philadelphia) and on into the Stanley Cup finals, where they astonished Montreal with the spirit and quality of their game. The Blues are strong again, particularly at center ice and in goal, where it is most important to be strong.
"People say we've added too much age in Jacques Plante  and Doug Harvey ," says Bowman. "But, really, this is a young club that can afford it." Glenn Hall, the best goaltender in the league when he is on his game, will split time with Plante, who is coming off a three-year retirement.
The Blues had difficulty scoring goals—particularly on the power play—so little Camille Henry, the ex-Ranger with the knack of flicking them in around the net, has been signed. Red Berenson leads the strong center corps, which includes Frank St. Marseille and Ron Schock. Ab McDonald, acquired from Pittsburgh, is a forward of above-average size and strength, and he could be in for a notable year, skating on a line with Berenson and Wing Tim Ecclestone, a converted center.
The schedule confronts St. Louis with East opponents in 12 of its first 21 games, so a fast start is unlikely, but as the suntans fade the Blues should be in the fight for the West title all the way.
MINNESOTA NORTH STARS
For most of last season the best act in Minnesota was not the North Stars, it was Wren Blair, their volatile coach and general manager, leaping onto the dasher to scream at the referee, waving his left fist in the face of a defenseman who had just cost the North Stars a goal, wiping his face with a towel, then throwing the towel 50 feet into the air.
Now Blair has a new act: that is, probably the best hockey team in the Western Division. The North Stars finished fourth last year, beat Los Angeles in the first round of the playoffs and then lost a seven-game series to the St. Louis Blues. After that defeat, Blair moved directly to the negotiating table. He signed several Canadian Olympic players, including Danny O'Shea, who has a chance to play regularly this year. He traded future draft rights to Montreal for Forwards Claude Larose and Danny Grant, competent players who simply could not break into the Canadiens' regular lineup. Then, in the draft, he purchased veteran Defensemen Wayne and Larry Hill-man. Added to the nucleus Blair developed last year, these players will help make the North Stars the most improved team in the NHL.
That established nucleus consists of five players—Forwards Wayne Connelly, Ray Cullen and Andre Boudrias, Defenseman Mike McMahon and Goaltender Cesare Maniago. Connelly led the West with 35 goals. Cullen scored 28, while Boudrias, a pesty little do-it-all, centered a regular line, killed penalties and worked the power play. "They all may have had great years last season," Blair says, "but now we've got to watch out for the sophomore jinx."
Maybe so. The rest of the West, and for that matter the rest of the NHL, will have to watch out for the North Stars.
Around the league last year the Penguins jokingly were called the Donut Team because they had nocenters—none of NHL caliber, anyway—and when they finished in fifth place it really did not surprise many people. Coach Red Sullivan tried to fill the hole during the off season, and he did acquire three veterans, Charlie Burns and Wally Boyer, who played for last-place Oakland a year ago, and Lou Angotti, who captained the Philadelphia Flyers last season. Another veteran, Earl Ingarfield, returns to the Penguins.
Whether or not the weakness at center has been cured, the Penguins have a number of other problems that probably will keep them out of the playoffs again. One problem is age. Another is muscle. The Penguins were the least penalized team in the NHL last season, rarely hitting hard enough to impress anyone. The one forward who did throw his weight around, Ab McDonald, was traded to St. Louis. Leo Boivin, a defenseman who is built like a fire hydrant, still is one of the best body checkers, but last season he was the only Pittsburgh defenseman who would knock down an opponent in front of Goalie Binkley. In anti-meekness moves, the Penguins bought a tough defenseman, John Arbour, 23, and a wing with a wallop, Jean Pronovost, 22, from the Bruins.
The one position at which the Penguins are well set is in goal, where Binkley, who once was a minor league trainer, posted six shutouts and a fine 2.88 goals-against average in 54 games last year. "He shut us out 1-0 one night when we took 56 shots at him. It was the best goaltending job I've ever seen," said the Bruins' Bobby Orr. It's dollars to donuts, however, that the playoffs are out of reach.
During the NHL June meetings in Montreal the new owners of the Seals invited all the players and their new coach. Freddy Glover, down to Ruby Foo's Chinese restaurant on Decarie Boulevard, where a concerted effort was made to erase the memory of the year's miseries in food and drink.
No roof had been big enough to cover the Seals and their first coach, Bert Olmstead, once a redoubtable forward but at Oakland a poor handler of men. Glover, for the past six years player-coach for Cleveland in the AHL, has the reputation of being a player's coach.
Glover is building around a goaltending team that stood up well amid the disasters of last year. Diminutive Charlie Hodge completed the season with a 2.86 average for 58 games, and he will again be backed up by Gary Smith, a 24-year-old with promise.
Defenseman Bert Marshall is big enough and is skilled at blocking shots. Glover would like to pair him with Doug Roberts, the native American 200-pounder, provided Roberts can make the conversion from his normal position, right wing. Bryan Watson and Carol Vadnais, both acquired from Montreal, provide a swift, agile, defense shift.
Last year the Seals' 153-goal attack was the worst in either division, but Glover does have one good forward line and another seems to be in the making. Ted Hampson, scorer of 54 points last season, will center Billy Hicke and Gary Jarrett, who scored 39 goals between them, on the No. 1 unit.
As an AHL player-coach Glover was almost always among the league leaders in goals and penalties. His first NHL team, anxious to reflect Glover's aggressive personality, will be scrappy and colorful—quite possibly aggressive enough to win a playoff spot.