Those teenyboppers of the NHL, the New York Islanders, are giving their elders all they can handle again this season and there have been rave reviews for 19-year-old Center Bryan Trottier, the latest kid hero:
•He's a surprisingly clever player—Cliff Fletcher, general manager, Atlanta Flames.
•My assistant coaches tell me that he's an instinctual player, so cool under fire you'd think he was 30—Fred Shero, coach, Philadelphia Flyers.
•The finesse he brings to the game is amazing. You can't learn it.—Denis Potvin, Islander defenseman and 1974 Rookie of the Year.
Trottier, the leading scorer among first-year players and front-runner for 1976 rookie honors, is the fulcrum on which the Islanders are levering up their current Stanley Cup hopes, but he hasn't been swept away by the adulation. "I don't think I've got any more instinct for the game than the next guy," he says in a Gary Cooper drawl redolent of his native Saskatchewan plains, where a man's got to do what a man's got to do even at 19. "All I know is that I started playing hockey late, at the age of nine, and my dad told me what to do, and if I didn't, I got my butt kicked." So much for instinct.
Results are another matter. At week's end, Trottier's 20 goals and 43 assists for 63 points—10th best among all NHL scorers—put him 19 points ahead of the nearest rookie, Detroit Winger Michel Bergeron. Trottier tied the Islanders' single-game record by scoring a hat trick and getting two assists in the second game of his NHL career, against Los Angeles last October. Because of his fire power, the Islanders have become more offense-minded. Until this season the team's meat and potatoes were the powerful Potvin brothers, anchoring a disciplined defense, and stingy goaltending. They still are, but now there is some gravy. With the Trottier-Clark Gillies-Bill Harris line as the heart of their power play today, the Islanders lead the league in goals scored when an opponent is short-handed (71). And with Trottier sharing penalty-killing duties, the Islanders are fourth in shorthanded goals (7).
If Trottier looks good on the stat sheets, he is even better on the ice. He cruises the rinks like a barracuda, lunging fearlessly into the corners when the need arises, and he is almost never out of position. "He makes things happen," says General Manager Bill Torrey. "He's solid. You can't knock him off the puck. We're a position team, and he plays our style perfectly."
Square and solid at 5'11" and 195 pounds, Trottier is still growing. That is not unusual on a team where 10 of the 20 players on the roster came directly from junior hockey, all but three of the original player-pool expansion picks having been traded for draft choices. "I've always wanted to have a young team, so we can grow up together," says Torrey. "If you're 22 you're a veteran on this club."
"I haven't been this busy since I was 15 and playing five hockey games a week for Swift Current, Val Marie and Climax back home," says Trottier. He certainly wasn't awed last week when he matched up with Ranger superstar Phil Esposito at Madison Square Garden. "I won a couple of faceoffs from him," said the rookie matter-of-factly.
Now armed with three solid lines, a formidable defense and superb goaltending, the Islanders are a solid second to division-leading Philadelphia, the Stanley Cup champion, trailing them by 10 points early this week.
Realists do not expect the Islanders to outsoar the Flyers anytime soon, but Trottier and the rest of the kids are selling out the seats in Nassau Coliseum and putting on a good show. What's more, the No. 2 candidate right now for Rookie of the Year is Islander Goalie Glenn Resch, a senior citizen of 27. Having played only 25 games last season, including a stunning, three-game winning performance in the semifinal playoffs against the Flyers, Resch is eligible for the rookie award. This season he has a fine 2.09 goals-against average, second only to the 1.94 of the Montreal Canadiens' Ken Dryden.
With triggerman Trottier providing five goals and seven assists, the Islanders recently achieved a team-record 10-game defeatless streak, but some of the victories were squeakers. "That stuff won't cut it in the playoffs," warns Coach Al Arbour. "They get more than one chance at you there. We have to play our positional game, not get into a shootout." But if it does come to a shootout, Bryan Trottier is handy to have around.
In moments of relaxation the rancher's son strums a guitar and sings, "They're gonna put me in the movies, they're gonna make a big star outta me."
That remains to be seen. What is certain is that when the ice melts in the spring and Trottier has gone home to buck hay and herd cattle on his dad's 960 acres, Arbour's Clearasil Kids will have done something youthful, and probably amazing.