What's to be expected of a team that loses 33% of its attack, 66% of its inspiration and 99% of its charisma? Well, for one thing, a divisional title. Although Bobby Hull pocketed a contract worth $3 million and jetted off to Winnipeg, Chicago, which would do well to finish fourth in the East, will win another title in the expansion West.
Replacing Hull, who scored 50 goals again last season, will be impossible, so Coach Billy Reay will not even try. Instead, he hopes to prod some of his less dazzling icemen into greater effort. As Dennis Hull, who has no illusions about filling his brother's various roles, puts it, "People will be looking at us and saying, 'Bobby carried you guys all these years; now see what you can do without him.' So we'll have to work our butts off."
Reay has another wrinkle or two in mind. Goalie Tony Esposito, who had the best average in the league last spring but then played a terrible Stanley Cup series against New York, will work at least a dozen more games than last season's 48. "Tony needs work to stay sharp," Reay says. "We didn't give it to him." There also will be more protection up front for Stan Mikita, Pit Martin and Chico Maki as Jerry Korab, Darryl Maggs and Dan Maloney—three brawny, beat-'em-up types—move in as regular bodyguards.
Without Bobby Hull to worry about, Minnesota may be able to give Chicago some of the competition it has lacked the past two years. "The Black Hawks beat us by 21 points last season," says North Star Coach Jack Gordon. "Now we ought to find out how many points Hull was worth to them." Once again Gordon will rely heavily on the defensive savvy of his 10 senior citizens, ranging in age from 43-year-old Goaltender Gump Worsley to 30-year-old Left Wing Jean-Paul Parise. The old men were primarily responsible for Minnesota's 2.44 goals-against average, the second-best record in the NHL. However, to prevent a recurrence of the weary legs that ruined the North Stars in the playoffs, Gordon plans to utilize two 22-year-olds, Defenseman Fred Barrett and Wing Buster Harvey, who had 41 goals at Cleveland.
Bill Goldsworthy shuffled to his third 30-plus goal season last year, but Center Jude Drouin (13 goals) and Wing Danny Grant (18) slumped miserably and must regain their scoring touch if the North Stars expect to make a race of it with the Black Hawks. If the attack remains weak, and if the old men grow weary again, then the North Stars will be hard pressed to stay ahead of the St. Louis Blues.
St. Louis needs only a top goaltender to complete the fast rebuilding job it started less than 12 months ago. Jacques Caron, a minor league retread, played well (2.52 goals-against in 28 games) after coming up from Denver, but Ernie Wakely jumped to Winnipeg.
In Barclay and Bob Plager, Moose Dupont, Noel Picard and Steve Durbano, St. Louis will have the roughest, crudest defense in hockey, although Coach Al Arbour, a craftsman during his playing career, may yet be able to teach them some of the game's finer points. "Durbano doesn't check the condition of the ice before a game," says one St. Louis player. "He checks the condition of the seat in the penalty box."
Garry Unger, who lives on a farm outside St. Louis and rides his two horses almost every day, gallops in off a 36-goal season to center the No. 1 line for Mike Murphy and Phil (The Enforcer) Roberto, neither of whom is shy about working the puck out of the corners. Top rookie Wayne Merrick may center another line, and there are plenty of scorers on the wings, including Gary Sabourin (28 goals) and Jack Egers (23). "We no longer are a sinking ship," says Captain Arbour.
The rest of the teams in the West—yes, even the Atlanta Flames—all have a chance at the final playoff spot. Philadelphia spent six months reliving the goal Buffalo's Gerry Meehan scored against the Flyers with only four seconds to play in the 1971-72 season. That one knocked the Flyers out of a playoff berth and let the Pittsburgh Penguins sneak in. "It was ridiculous," says Flyer Coach Fred Shero. "With 10 minutes to play in that game we were in third place. With five seconds to play we were in fourth. And with four seconds to play we were dead."
Philadelphia has the same problems as always: 1) erratic goaltending, 2) a slow, bumbling defense and 3) too many forwards who have no idea what to do with the puck once they get it. But the Flyers also have the best player in the West, 23-year-old Center Bobby Clarke (35 goals, 46 assists). Last year Clarke had to work the power play, kill penalties and even center two lines at times, playing more than 30 minutes a game. "I'm afraid he'll have to do all those things again," Shero says. "Clarke's a one-man hockey team for us. He gets the puck and then does things with it. I refuse to think where we would be without him."
Pittsburgh has no stars, as usual, but again is blessed with a superior coach. Indeed, the unflappable Red Kelly seems to accomplish more with his very ordinary players than most coaches who have a topliner or two. Kelly-coached teams have missed the playoffs only once in five years, but this season Red will find it difficult to repeat. Goaltender Jim Rutherford, who had a strong playoff series against the Black Hawks, needs a backup man, and the defense will miss Tim Horton's leadership, although second-year regular Dave Burrows could develop into an All-Star. The Penguin offense is Syl Apps (15 goals, 44 assists) centering for Jean Pronovost and Greg Polis, both of whom scored 30 goals last year. What Pittsburgh needs is, well, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.
In the real West, Los Angeles may have the most improved team in the NHL, but the Californians probably will get lost on a BART car somewhere between San Francisco and Oakland. Jack Kent Cooke and Charlie Finley both changed coaches again, Cooke for the sixth time in six L.A. years, Finley for the third time in three seasons up north. Bob Pulford, Cooke's latest coach, intends to introduce the Kings to defensive hockey—not a bad idea for a team that gave up 305 goals, the most in the league. Two former Canadiens, Goaltender Rogatien Vachon and Defenseman Terry Harper, will help considerably. Flashy Juha Widing (27 goals) and the aging but accomplished Ralph Backstrom (23) will provide some offensive punch.
Finley could not find anyone patient or sensible enough to tackle California's problems, so he gave the coaching job to his general manager, Garry Young. "The WHA has ripped the guts from our club," Young says. "We've lost six players, and we didn't have six players to lose." Or even one. Among the missing: top scorers Gerry Pinder, Bobby Sheehan and Tom Webster and backup Goaltender Gary Kurt.
"Things were so bad in training camp," Young says, "that one day a player skated into me, knocked me down, cracked one of my ribs and shattered my watch." Although it is unlikely that the Seals will wreak similar destruction on any enemy, they do have three solid players left in Goalie Gilles Meloche, Defenseman Rick Smith and Center Ivan Boldirev, and a rookie center, Stan Weir of Medicine Hat, Alberta, is expected to play regularly.
There probably will be too many mornings in Atlanta this year when the headlines read BRUINS DOUSE FLAMES or FLAMES FLAME OUT, but the division's newest expansion team might just do a little scorching here and there. Indeed, it could make the playoffs. In 23-year-old Phil Myre and 21-year-old Danny Bouchard Atlanta has a good young goaltending tandem. In General Manager Cliff Fletcher it has an ally of Montreal's Sammy Pollock, and Pollock always takes care of his friends when he disposes of the Canadiens' excess talent. Right, Minnesota? Finally, the Flames have Boom-Boom Geoffrion as their coach. Geoffrion, who claims he no longer suffers from the ulcer attacks that aborted his coaching career in New York, will extract top performance from his younger players, particularly the No. 1 amateur choice, Wing Jacques Richard, and two other French Canadians, Norm Gratton and Lucien Grenier. And Geoffrion's charm will be an asset when the losses begin to pile up. He already has the people on Peachtree Street talking French, and they have taught him their language. Geoffrion says to Northern friends, "Y'all come down and see me, heah?" Yes, my old one, any day now.