The NHL's four divisional races are strangely meaningless in a league in which 12 of the 18 teams qualify—720 games and six months later—for that annual springtime madness known as the Stanley Cup playoffs. So this prognosis ignores the races in the Adams, Smythe, Norris and Patrick divisions and, instead, separates the teams into more meaningful categories based on their prospects of winning the cup. It also highlights the rookies who could make the difference. Before you ask: Philadelphia, Montreal, Buffalo and Vancouver all will repeat as divisional champions—and Washington's hapless Capitals again will finish with hockey's worst regular-season record.
SUPER TEAM: Freddie (The Fog) Shero, Philadelphia's man from Moscow, added Wrinkle No. 2485 to his mind-boggling coaching methodology by organizing hockey's first official Xs-and-Os playbook for the Stanley Cup champion Flyers. Why, Fog? There is nothing very secret or intricate about what the Flyers do on the ice: they simply play hockey better than any team this side of Russia's Wings of the Soviet. "The playbook makes it easier for the players to visualize situations as I discuss them," Shero says. "Under my system each player must be in a certain place at a certain time—and it's all right there in the book. Oh, yes. If anybody wants one of these books, just write me at the Spectrum in Philadelphia."
If they were smart, the 17 other clubs in the NHL would send self-addressed stamped envelopes to Shero this instant. However, Shero will not airmail Bernie Parent, the best goal-tender in the game, or Bobby Clarke, the most tenacious leader and the most persistent player in the sport, or any of the other Flyers who have brought two straight Stanley Cups to the city of brotherly mug. Parent had a bad back and started the regular season in traction, which is where the rest of the league would like to keep him for about eight months. Competent Wayne Stephenson mans the goal until Parent returns. For protection, both Parent and Stephenson rely on The Underrateds—five guys named Jim, Joe, Tom, Ed and Moose who 1) block more shots each game than most goalies and 2) never let rival forwards hang around the goal crease for more than a fraction of a second. Their last names are Watson, Watson (brothers), Bladon, Van Impe and Dupont. Crusty old Van Impe answers to the name Zorro, as in: "Out of the night, when the full moon is bright, comes the defenseman known as Zorro/This bold renegade carves a Z with his blade...." In other words, don't mess with Mr. Van Impe.
Clarke is Clarke—or Pete Rose plus. "We're still desperate to win," he said. "We're a better club now than we were last season. We used to get publicity for gooning around, but it won't be that way anymore. Believe me, we are one solid team." Besides Clarke (27 goals and 89 assists last season), Philadelphia boasts Reggie Leach (45 goals), Rick MacLeish (38), diving specialist Bill Barber (34) and two-way Wings Ross Lonsberry (24) and Gary Dornhoefer (17). "We've also got a slew of guys like Don Saleski, Dave Schultz, Bob Kelly and Orest Kindrachuk who didn't even get 12 goals last year but were big guys on our club," Clarke said. "The way we play, there's more to hockey than scoring goals."
For added effect Philadelphia has acquired last season's top junior player, Center Mel Bridgman, who checks like Clarke and makes Philadelphia-style Kamikaze charges into the corners. "The management would like me to send Bridgman to the minors for some experience," Shero says. "No way. No one ever sent kids like that to me when I was coaching in the minors." If necessary, the Flyers can always revert to the terror tactics that have made them infamous for the past few years. They led the world with 1,969 penalty minutes a year ago—that's almost 12 hours more than any other NHL club. Philadelphia also has three coaches—Shero and assistants Mike Nykoluk (offense) and Barry Ash-bee (defense)—prompting Clarke to ask: "Why is it that the best team in the world has three coaches and most of the others in the NHL have only one?" Maybe Shero will send the answer with his playbook.
CONTENDERS: With apologies to such legends as Richard and Beliveau, the real home of the Flying Frenchmen now happens to be Buffalo, N.Y., U.S.A. Or maybe Serge Savard, Yvan Cournoyer and all those guys named Guy up in Montreal have not yet caught the names on Buffalo's new power play: Gilbert Perreault, Jacques Richard and René Robert up front, Richard Martin and Jocelyn Guevremont at the point. Buffalo embarrassed Montreal all last season, taking nine of a possible 10 points during the regular schedule and then blasting Les Canadiens from the Stanley Cup playoffs in six games. All the Buffalo-Montreal matches were what Canadien Goaltender Ken Dry-den properly called "basketball games," featuring scores like 8-7 and 8-6 and a complete absence of defense. Strangely, while Montreal generally plays Philadelphia closely, the Flyers always blitz the Sabres. Why? "No one on my team comes from Philadelphia," explains Buffalo General Manager Punch Imlach. "We have a lot of guys from Montreal and Quebec, and when we play the Canadiens they want to show the home folks how well they can play."
In truth, Philadelphia handles Buffalo easily because Bobby Clarke does what the Montreal centers never have been able to do: he neutralizes the explosive Buffalo attack by not letting Perreault off the end of his stick. By studying game films, Clarke discovered that Perreault has not yet learned how to work give-and-go pass plays from his own end to the opposition blue line. Perreault either carries the puck up ice himself, taking lots of flashy detours, or the puck simply remains in the Buffalo zone. What Clarke does, then, is harass Perreault constantly, banging him with his stick and body, all the while forcing Perreault to the boards and out of the play. "My guys know they should do this, too," says Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman, "but they never do it." However, Imlach disputes this entire How-to-Stop-Perreault theory. "We don't play Philadelphia often enough for our players to figure out how to beat the Flyers," he says. "If we did, we'd learn how to overcome Philadelphia's hooking, checking and taking out the man. The other clubs in the league just don't play like that."
Having seen the Cup finals, they may start to. Until then, Buffalo is content to go with only one minor alteration in its regular lineup, prompted by the acquisition of Left Wing Jacques Richard from Atlanta. In an attempt to spread out the Sabres' scoring power and get some checking, Buffalo Coach Floyd Smith severed the French Connection—Perreault (39 goals last year), Martin (52) and Robert (40)—in training camp, but he will reunite them for at least the first few weeks of the regular schedule. However, if the Connection continues to ignore defense, Smith is ready to break up the line again. Martin had bone-fusion surgery on his right thumb during the summer, and it is now slightly shorter than his left. Will he now score only 40 goals a year? "No," Martin says, "I'm shooting much more accurately than I used to." Buffalo's most complete but unsung line features penalty-killers deluxe Don Luce and Craig Ramsay along with Right Wing Danny Gare; they managed to score 90 goals last year while playing against the oppositions' highest-scoring lines. The temperamental Richard adds still more scoring power, but the Sabres will miss the muscle and 31 goals of WHA defector Rick Dudley.
On defense, Captain Jim Schoenfeld works with tough Jerry (King-Kong) Korab, while Guevremont teams with lanky Bill Hajt—the most unspectacular Sabre defenseman but perhaps the most effective. However Buffalo must replace the traded Larry Carriere. The normally talkative Schoenfeld has adopted a new close-mouthed posture. "I think I talked too much about the team last year," he says. "I used to wonder if I said the right thing, and maybe it affected my play." The Buffalo goaltending situation remains questionable. Gerry Desjardins, Roger Crozier and Gary Bromley are back, and rookie Robert Sauve has been impressive, but the Sabres still lack the Parent or Dryden who could take them to the Cup.
Up in Montreal, Bowman seems perplexed about the prospects for his Canadiens, who tied Buffalo and Philadelphia with 113 regular-season points to top the NHL last year. "I'd really like to have two different clubs," he says. "A big, tough fighting team to play Philadelphia, and a fast, checking defensive squad to play Buffalo." With this in mind, Bowman intends to keep only one forward unit intact all year—Center Doug Risebrough and Wings Mario Tremblay and Yvon Lambert—and rotate his other skaters as the situation demands. For instance, Guy La-fleur, who finally arrived last season with 53 goals, will play right wing for Center Peter Mahovlich (35 goals and 82 assists) against some rivals but move to center against others. In training camp the elusive Lafleur seemed to be working overtime on the old "dive" trick whenever an opponent came within checking range. "Lafleur may even beat out Philadelphia's Bill Barber for a place on the Canadian Olympic diving team," says one Boston player. Yvon Cournoyer slumped miserably a year ago, scoring only 29 goals and rarely breaking away, but he seems to have regained his legs. "He's a goal scorer," Bowman says, "not a fancy playmaker." For added scoring, the Canadiens, who led the NHL with 374 goals in 1974-75, have Steve Shutt (30 goals), Yvon Lambert (32), Murray Wilson (24), Jacques Lemaire (36) and Tremblay (21). "Offensively, we have the best personnel in the game," says Bowman.
Defensively, Montreal has a surplus of offensive defense-men—particularly Serge Savard (29 goals) and Guy Lapointe (28)—but lacks a supply of Ed Van Impe-type defensemen who don't mind leaving the scoring to others. Indeed, Don Awrey (always) and Larry Robinson (occasionally) are the only Montreal defensemen who worry about the welfare of Goaltenders Dryden and Bunny Larocque. Rookie Rick Chartraw, a disturber, could be the Van Impe poleax that the Canadiens have not had since the days of Ted Harris. In goal, Dryden, moving more naturally now than he did last season in his comeback, will play about 60 games, with Larocque working the rest. "We need consistency in the goal," says Bowman "but better checking will help provide it."
There are two changes in Montreal. Jean Julien has been hired as the new organist, with orders to hype the normally subdued French crowd, and for the first time in almost 35 years there will not be a Richard in the Canadiens lineup. Henri Richard has retired, passing the captaincy to Cournoyer, and with his departure hockey may have seen the end of the era of the Flying Frenchmen in Montreal.
DARK HORSES: It has been 35 years since the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup—next season it figures to be 36. The 35th annual Ranger rebuilding program began on schedule last spring following the club's shocking preliminary round elimination from the playoffs by the neighboring Islanders. For starters, General Manager Emile Francis has relinquished his position as coach—for the third time—and selected Ron Stewart as his successor. Stewart hopes to survive longer than Francis' two previous hand-picked replacements, Boom Boom Geoffrion and Harry Popein, neither of whom lasted a season. Next, Francis reached for his checkbook and lured Center Wayne Dillon, 21, and Left Wing Pat Hickey, 22, from the WHA's Toronto Toros. Then, in desperate need of a young goaltender, Francis phoned his friends in St. Louis and, presto, 22-year-old John Davidson took the next underground-railroad express to Madison Square Garden's basement, which is also known as Penn Station.
Trouble is, to get Davidson, Francis gave the Blues his three policemen, Ted Irvine, Jerry Butler and Bert Wilson. Which means that with the retirement of Dale Rolfe, the Rangers are practically bereft of defensive defensemen. Brad Park has a middle-aged paunch and bad knees; Gilles Marotte falls for even the worst fakes and screens his goaltenders too much; and 21-year-old Ron Greschner, strong offensively, habitually penetrates the attacking zone too deeply and gets hopelessly trapped out of position. Behind the leaky defense, Davidson—one of the quintet of Rangerowned goalies collecting some $600,000 in salaries this year—will doubtlessly be tutored by his playing partner, either Eddie Giacomin or Gilles Villemure. The newcomer permits too many rebounds and moves clumsily when he leaves his net to clear loose pucks.
Up front the high-octane Ranger attack could explode if Center Walt Tkaczuk rediscovers the work ethic. Jean Ratelle (36 goals) centers the top line for Rod Gilbert (36)—the new owner of a 15-room, seven-fireplace $325,000 Manhattan townhouse—and Steve Vickers (41). Dillon, who scored 59 goals in his two WHA seasons, centers the Kid Line of Hickey and injury-prone Rick Middleton. Tkaczuk, who had only 11 goals a year ago, and Bill Fairbairn are definites on the third line, with rookie Jerry Holland and Derek Sanderson among other candidates.
The real question around New York, though, is: Will success spoil the Islanders? "Bleep last season," says Coach Al Arbour, "it's gone." The Islanders, remember, eliminated both the Rangers and the Penguins from the Cup playoffs and then extended the champion Flyers to seven games in the semifinals. Unlike the Rangers, the Islanders did not rebuild. In fact, there is only one new regular in their lineup—20-year-old Bryan Trottier, who centers the top line for Wings Billy Harris and body-bender Clark Gillies. "Trottier's like Gilbert Perreault, except he's not as dynamic yet," says Defenseman Denis Potvin. Harris, the only pure scorer among the Islander forwards, has never had a center with Trottier's playmaking ability and as a result has endured long scoring droughts, such as last season's depressing 22-game streak. Minnesota rejects Jude Drouin and J.P. Parise work the OP Folks second line with Eddie Westfall, while Garry Howatt and dogged Bob Nystrom man the wings on the third line.
Defensively, the Islanders recorded the third-best goals-against average in the league a year ago thanks to Arbour's patient teaching. If Bobby Orr remains sidelined for long, Potvin could end his hold on the Norris Trophy awarded the league's top defenseman. "Maybe Ell do it anyway," says Potvin, who led the Islanders with 21 goals and 55 assists. "One problem is that I've never played well against Orr, particularly in Boston." Besides Potvin, the Islanders offer such defensive types as Bert Marshall, now known as Shirley because of his perm; Dave Lewis; Gerry Hart, whose size (5'9") obscures his efficiency; Dave Fortier; Jean Potvin; and Pat Price, a 20-year-old bust in the WHA but learning now under Arbour. Goaltenders Billy Smith and Glenn (Chico) Resch could be more consistent.
What the Islanders lack is a power play. For some reason Arbour, a former defenseman who never skated on a power play himself, cannot settle on five players as specialists; consequently, the Islanders usually are the best penalty-killers the opposition has.
Boston will have an Islander-style power play until Orr returns from his most recent knee surgery, probably in mid-November. Once again Coach Don Cherry is stressing back-checking, forechecking and aggression in the defensive zone—in other words, those areas of sound hockey in which the Bruins have never excelled. "I'm not interested in goals anymore," Cherry says. "If a guy gets caught for a lot of goals-against, I'm yanking him. I wasn't prepared for the complacency and lack of aggressiveness we had here last year; now the players better be prepared for what will happen if they don't get out there and really invade the corners." How tough will Cherry be? He canceled the team's annual preseason golf-and-party bash, claiming it set too frivolous a tone.
The new Phil Esposito will skate shorter shifts and will not kill penalties. Esposito scored 61 goals but was a one-man line a year ago, when Left Wing Wayne Cashman spent much of the season in traction because of bone chips in his lower back and Right Wing Ken Hodge inexplicably forgot how to play hockey, slumping from 50 goals to 23. "It will be different this year," Esposito says. As always, the Bruins will be virtually a one-line team on attack, which means that rivals still will be able to assign checking specialists to the Esposito troika and not worry about getting hurt too badly by Boston's other units, centered by Gregg Sheppard (30 goals) and Andre Savard (19). Johnny Bucyk is 40 going on 49 but still wields a quick stick around the goalmouth on power plays, while Terry O'Reilly is a robust corner stalker.
On defense, Carol Vadnais will attempt to maintain some semblance of order in Orr's absence. Rookie Doug Hal-ward provides puck-handling finesse, but Boston still lacks a muscleman who can forcefully persuade rival forwards not to linger around the net. Goaltender Gilles Gilbert must overcome his hypochondria and play consistently; if he doesn't, Dave Reece of Troy, New York and the University of Vermont will take the regular job. "Once Orr comes back," says Esposito, "we'll be all right." If it's not too late.
In Los Angeles, flashy Marcel Dionne will remove some of the boredom from the staid, slow, successful defensive games the Kings have patented under Coach Bob Pulford. Mike Murphy works the right side for Dionne, but Pulford will rotate several left wings—notably Bob Berry and pugnacious Dave Hutchison—until he finds the best combination. Pulford has dismantled his off-Broadway line of former Rangers Gene Carr, Tom Williams and Murphy; Carr now plays left wing, not center, and Williams will shuttle between various lines. Center Butch Goring is healthy again, after almost losing his left eye when Denis Potvin's skate shattered his orbit bone last March. He will work with Right Wing Bob Nevin on a regular line and as a penalty killer. One problem: Pulford needs a muscleman to replace Danny Maloney, who was sent to Detroit in the Dionne deal.
Pulford's defense is solidly unspectacular, with no Orr types, just half a dozen players like Bob Murdoch, Larry Brown, Neil Komadoski and Shelly Kannegiesser, who do not mind exposing their dentures to flying pucks. Goaltenders Rogatien Vachon and Gary Edwards, the main beneficiaries of those puck swallowers, trailed only Philadelphia's Bernie Parent in goals-against average a year ago. Vachon again will play twice as many games as Edwards, who could be traded for a policeman if Pulford cannot locate another Maloney. Would you believe Dionne for Maloney again?
THE PACK: Yes, the Penguins are back in Pittsburgh after spending most of the off-season waddling through bankruptcy court. New President Wren (Bird) Blair, long the general manager of the Minnesota North Stars, has instituted a total austerity program, raised the price of the average ticket from $5.75 to a full $7 and advised his well-paid chattels that they had better produce, now! On paper, Pittsburgh is a deep, sound, tough team that had the sixth-best record in the NHL last season. The problem is, most of the Penguins are what Coach Marc Boileau calls "followers." "What we need," Boileau admits, "is one guy to kick fannies in our dressing room. Why is it that we lose to the Flyers in Philadelphia by scores of 4-0, 6-0 and 9-0 but beat them in Pittsburgh by scores of 6-1 and 8-2? Character! We don't have enough character yet." So why doesn't Boileau give them some character? Well, the fiery coach and some of his top players often seem to be operating on different wave lengths.
On the ice, the Penguins are strong through center with Syl Apps, Ron Schock and flashy Pierre Larouche, who scored 31 goals last year as a rookie; physical up front with Battleship Kelly and Vic Hadfield; smooth with Wings Jean Pronovost (43 goals) and Rick Kehoe (32); and rugged on defense, where they are led by Dave Burrows, who does everything well except attract attention. Pittsburgh's top draft choice, Gordie Laxton, is pressing holdovers Gary (The Scholar) Inness and erratic Michel Plasse for the regular goaltending job. "Instead of believing we're a good team," Boileau says, "we've got to start playing like a good team—and not just in the Civic Arena, either."
The Vancouver Canucks, who won the poverty-pocket Smythe Division championship last season despite having only the ninth-best record in the NHL, have been wandering around North America like a band of nomads—playing seven and eight road games in a row and staying away from home for as long as three weeks. No more. Thanks to boss man Phil Maloney's lobbying tactics at NHL control, the Canucks now make more road trips but play only three or four games on most junkets. Better still, Maloney has added some size to Vancouver's generally tiny lineup, top-draft Right Wing Rick Blight (6'2", 195 pounds) and burly Defenseman Harold Snepsts (6'3", 200) having won regular jobs. Maloney has tinkered slightly with his attack, too, moving sneaky Don Lever (38 goals last year) from left wing to center. John Gould (34 goals), Gerry O'Flaherty (25) and diminutive Center Andre Boudrias (62 assists) key the attack with Lever, but the grittiest Canuck forward is Center Chris Oddleifson, who had his jaw broken last season and still scored 16 goals. Bob (Waldo) Dailey, who at 6'5" and 215 pounds is the NHL's biggest player, anchors the defense, while Goaltender Gary Smith is in the best shape of his life, having dropped 17 pounds to a svelte 207.
Toronto has started another youth program; old hands Dave Keon and Norm Ullman have switched to the WHA and Ron Ellis and Eddie (The Entertainer) Shack have discovered retirement. Wayne Thomas, who played spectator for the Canadiens a year ago, solves the crisis in goal, and Swede Borje Salming—the first European ever to be voted to the NHL's all-star team—directs the defense, where aggressive Bob Neely (ankle) and Ian Turnbull (knee) have returned from disabling injuries. Salming also missed 20 games with three different injuries a year ago. With Salming, the Maple Leafs had a 26-21-13 record; without him, they were 5-12-3. Captain Darryl Sittler (36 goals), rough George Ferguson and rookie Don Ashby handle center, but the Leafs are weak on the wings. For muscle, they offer hockey's new John Ferguson in Tiger Williams, a crude wing who fights like Joe Frazier—taking two and giving one, but the one hurts.
Billy Reay has outlasted 86 coaches since the NHL's expansion in 1967. However, Reay may envy those 86 this season as he watches his Chicago Black Hawks stumble around the ice. Tony Esposito will still play just about every game in goal, and cool Bill White, pugnacious Phil Russell and smooth Dick Redmond will rarely be embarrassed on defense. Up front, slick Stan Mikita (36 goals) centers a potential "big" line for Wings Cliff Koroll (27 goals) and Dennis Hull, who slumped to just 16 goals in 1974-75. Reay also has harnessed a terror trio of Ivan Boldirev, Grant Mulvey and John Marks and resurrected Bobby Sheehan from the WHA and the Weymouth, Mass. pubs to work at center for Darcy Rota and Pit Martin. "Give me good material and I'll coach as long as Casey Stengel managed," Reay says. Unfortunately, Reay's material is looking threadbare.
The Atlanta Flames are not strong enough to gain a playoff spot in the Patrick Division but probably could qualify in any other division. Coach Fred Creighton, who replaced Boom Boom Geoffrion midway through the 1974-75 schedule, will alternate Goaltenders Danny (Please call me Daniel) Bouchard and Phil Myre, the strongest tandem in the NHL. Barry Gibbs, secured from Minnesota last January, and top-draft Richard Mulhern move the puck well on defense, and Larry Carriere, acquired from Buffalo in the Jacques Richard deal, provides much-needed muscle. Center Tom Lysiak (25 goals and 52 assists) still must forget all those not-so-subtle moves that worked in junior hockey—like playing the puck with his feet—but he is expected to mature under Creighton. "Geoffrion had only one way for me to do things," he says. "Freddy has opened up the game for me." Left Wing Eric Vail (39 goals), the league's Rookie of the Year for 1974-75, will miss at least the first month of the schedule with a broken collarbone, crippling the already-weak Atlanta attack. Center Guy Chouinard, as flashy as Lysiak is methodical, starts the season in Nova Scotia, only a phone call away.
And now, here on our show, from the Arena in St. Louis—Sid the Third's Goon Squad Review. This season's master plan for the Blues emphasizes muscle, not finesse, and Owner Sid Salomon III can call on such body benders as Bert Wilson, Ted Irvine, Jerry Butler, Floyd Thomson, Barclay Plager, Bob Plager and Bob Gassoff (222 penalty minutes in 1974-75). Even the two major talents on the St. Louis roster, Center Garry Unger (36 goals) and Right Wing Pierre Plante (34 goals), each spent two hours in penalty boxes last year. Penalties aside, St. Louis' chief problems are on defense, where only 20-year-old Bob Hess seems to know what to do with the puck once he gets it, and in goal, where 39-year-old Eddie Johnston may have to play more than he instructs if Gilles Gratton and Yves Belanger fail to perform up to their press clipping.
PUSHOVERS: Ted Harris skated on five Stanley Cup champions, including the 1975 Philadelphia Flyers, and performed for both Toe Blake and Fred Shero. However, as Harris, the new coach in Minnesota, no doubt has already discovered, neither Toe Shero nor Fred Blake could mastermind the North Stars into the playoffs. For the misnamed North Stars, it is a crisis season as they battle the feisty Fighting Saints of the WHA for Minnesota's hockey dollar. Minnesota initiated a reconstruction project midway through the 1974-75 schedule by trading off several members of the Old Gang, such as Barry Gibbs, J. P. Parise and Jude Drouin, but the North Stars hardly got full value in return. Harris inherited a crude and inept corps of defense-men but expected quick relief from top-draft Bryan Maxwell. Alas, the North Stars could not meet Maxwell's dollar demands and lost him to the WHA. Worse still is the goaltending situation. Ancient Cesare Maniago will play about 30 games and also coach youngsters Pete LoPresti and Paul Harrison.
Up front, Dennis Hextall, who turned pacifist last season, has promised to "keep my mouth shut" and play tough hockey again, but Bill Goldsworthy (37 goals a year ago) is the only forward who knows where the net is. To counter all these deficiencies, Harris hopes to instill some Flyer-style aggressiveness and intimidate his way to a better record. "Dropping gloves and throwing punches always will be part of hockey," he says.
At long last Detroit has acquired a glove dropper and punch thrower in the person of tough Dan Maloney. The Red Wings have been the punching bags of the NHL ever since Gordie Howe retired his elbows. Maloney, who scored 27 goals for the Kings last year, also will play cop for 50-goal scorers Danny Grant and Mickey Redmond, and he may inspire some of the timid Red Wings to bring along their muscle on the road. Redmond seems completely recovered from last season's back surgery, while Bill Loc-head, the top draft and top flop of a year ago, is 15 pounds lighter and considerably quicker. Detroit's alleged defense is what new Coach Doug Barkley calls "below NHL standards." Fancy Jean Hamel, scrappy Bryan (Bugsy) Watson and rich rookie Rick Lapointe are in desperate need of instant help. In theory, at least, it is on the way. If Terry Harper, a crafty 13-year veteran of the NHL wars, ever reports from Los Angeles, the Red Wings' defense will be upgraded to "average NHL."
The California Lame Ducks—er, Seals—are playing in Oakland until the completion of their new building across the bay in San Francisco. Then again, if their new owners do not locate some well-heeled investors, the Seals may not be playing anyplace. New Coach Jack Evans must contend not only with inexperience among his key players but also with a front office filled with expert second-guessers. Goal-tenders Gilles Meloche and Gary Simmons play erratically, as do top Defensemen Jim Neilson and injury-prone Bob Stewart. Although 19-year-old Rick Hampton, last season's No. 1 draft selection, understandably failed to live up to management's hyperbolic billing as the "New Bobby Orr," he could emerge as California's best defenseman if the front office ever stops hassling him. Dave (Wrecker) Hrechkosy and Larry Patey, who scored 29 and 25 goals respectively as rookies last season, lead the attack and expect considerable help from top-draft Ralph Klassen, a strong center. Unfortunately, veteran Wing Jim Pappin (36 goals last year) failed to report to the Seals after being obtained from Chicago, and Center Stan Weir (18 goals) was dispatched to Toronto in a questionable deal for another wing, Gary Sabourin.
Kansas City picked second in the NHL's amateur draft last spring and selected a strong winger named Barry Dean who was, General Manager Sid Abel said enthusiastically, "in a class with Wilf Paiement," last season's No. I draft, who tied veteran Simon Nolet for the club lead with 26 goals. However, the Scouts did not meet Dean's salary demands and lost him to the WHA. Kansas City did acquire three widely traveled veterans—Denis Dupere, Craig Patrick and Gary Bergman—in an effort to remain stronger than Washington. "Playing for Kansas City was very interesting," former Flyer Nolet told Bobby Clarke. "All the guys who wouldn't dare run at me in Philadelphia suddenly began running at me."
Washington realized it probably would have been unable to sign the NHL's No. 1 amateur draft choice, so the Capitals wisely traded the pick to Philadelphia for Center Bill Clement and other considerations. Clement, a persistent checker with a good scoring touch, and Hartland Monahan, who is Boom Boom Geoffrion's son-in-law, add spirit to the Caps, who were the worst team in hockey history last year, winning only eight games. They will win at least nine games this season. Maybe even 10.