As they say in Montreal, plus √ßa change, plus c'est la m√™me chose. Translation: nine NHL teams may have hired new coaches, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Detroit Red Wings may have brought back the mace and chain, Rod Gilbert and the New York Rangers may have kissed and made up, a company that produces dog chow, among other things, may have bought the St. Louis Blues, and the league's officials may have their last names stitched across the back of their uniform shirts, but none of the above will prevent the MONTREAL Canadiens from romping to their third straight Stanley Cup championship.
Accurately labeled "one of the three best teams in hockey history" last season after they coursed through the regular schedule with a 60-8-12 record, outscoring the opposition 387 goals to 171, and then coasted to the Stanley Cup by winning 12 of 14 games, Les Canadiens no doubt will be rated as "one of the four best teams in hockey history" at the conclusion of the 1977-78 season. Indeed, Montreal does not have a single weakness.
Other teams may be storing up on Slapshot brutes, but not the Canadiens. Montreal is hockey's biggest team, and any rival who dares pick on Jacques Lemaire or Guy Lafleur or Yvan Cournoyer can count on an immediate meeting with the fists of Larry Robinson or Pierre Bouchard or Yvon Lambert. The 6'3", 210-pound Robinson, the man with the elastic arms, emerged as the game's best defenseman last season and joins Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe to form the nucleus of a defense corps that provides Goaltenders Ken Dryden and Bunny Larocque with the type of protection that is envied by even the Secret Service. The forwards? Just MVP Lafleur and his 136 regular-season and 26 playoff points; Steve Shutt and his 60 goals; Lemaire and his pinpoint passes to Lafleur and Shutt; and all those pesky checkers and face-off wizards, most notably Doug Jarvis, Bob Gainey and Doug Risebrough.
While Montreal will be playing in the one-team Elite flight, the best of the rest—the NEW YORK Islanders, Philadelphia, Boston and Buffalo—will be warring in the Ronnie Runner-up class. It's about that time for the young Islanders, the only team to win a game from Montreal—three, in fact—in the last two Stanley Cup playoffs, to mature and overcome the too frequent cases of the blahs that have always afflicted them at the wrong times. What would certainly help the Islanders is consistent play from Denis Potvin, the 23-year-old defenseman whose exalted opinion of himself on and off the ice led to a long period of estrangement from his teammates and a deterioration of his game last year. L' Affaire Potvin seems to have quieted down, or at least Potvin no longer wonders aloud why his teammates don't visit museums and libraries or select a 1972 red with their dinners.
Thanks to the addition of two Swedish imports. Goaltender Goran Hogosta and Defenseman Stefan Persson, the Islanders almost certainly will be trading either a goaltender or a defenseman—or maybe one of each—in an attempt to acquire a forward with proven 35-goal ability. Although Billy Smith and Chico Resch combined to give New York the second-best goals-against average in the NHL a year ago, one could be expendable if Hogosta plays to expectation. Or Hogosta could be the odd man out.
Center Bryan Trottier and top draft choice Mike Bossy, a 75-goal scorer for the Laval (Quebec) juniors last season, seem to be the only Islander forwards who don't specialize in hitting goal posts or shooting the puck over the net and into the crowd, but Bossy's checking deficiencies may keep him on the bench in many games.
For better or worse, the old PHILADELPHIA Flyers are back. After fighting their way to two Stanley Cups, the Flyers tried to play it straight the last two years and came away empty. So now they will be the Broad St. Bullies once again, led by pugilistic Paul Holmgren, a right wing whose best shot seems to be an overhand right from the blind side. The Flyers initiated several bench-clearing brawls during the exhibition season, including a disgraceful donnybrook against Boston that spread to the corridors of the Spectrum.
Violence aside, Philadelphia will need more consistency in goal than Bernie Parent has provided the last two seasons; leadership on defense from 6'5", 215-pound Bob Dailey; and regular scoring by the once prolific line of Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber and Reggie Leach. Clarke dropped from 30 goals to 27, Barber from 50 to 20 and Leach from 61 to 32 last season. Only Rick MacLeish had a productive (49 goals) season for the Flyers, but this year he'll probably wear himself out trying to kill Holmgren's penalties.
BOSTON Coach Don Cherry took one look at top draft pick Dwight Foster and decided that he would fit right in with the Bruins' Lunchpail A.C. "Look at that scar between his eyes," Cherry said. "He's my kind of guy." Foster plays center, a position already overcrowded with Jean Ratelle (33 goals), Peter McNab (38) and Gregg Sheppard (31), one of whom could be traded for the defenseman—are you listening. Islanders—the Bruins need so desperately to work with Brad Park, Mike Milbury and Gary Doak. Boston also has an extra goaltender now that Ron Grahame has come over from the WHA to challenge holdovers Gerry Cheevers and Gilles Gilbert. One Bruin who will not—repeat, not—be traded is Right Wing Terry O'Reilly, the pack leader. "The Bruins used to think Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr were the soul of the team," says Philadelphia Coach Fred Shero, "but all along it was Terry O'Reilly."
New BUFFALO Coach Marcel Pronovost has made it clear to Defensemen Jim Schoenfeld and Jerry Korab that he expects them to use their collective 428 pounds for something other than pacifist causes. Trouble is, Schoenfeld and Sabres General Manager Punch Imlach are not on the same wavelength, and Schoenfeld could be dealt away if the Sabres don't skate to an explosive start. One other problem: for all the gaudy scoring statistics compiled by Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin and Rene Robert, Buffalo has always come up short in the big games.
How Buffalo fares may well depend on the health of two players, Goaltender Gerry Desjardins and Right Wing Danny Gare. Desjardins was hit in the right eye by a puck last February, sat out the rest of the season and now will try to play with a thick contact lens. The 5'7", 175-pound Gare is the Sabres' real team leader. He scored 50 goals two years ago but missed 45 games last season because of a back injury. If he's healthy, Gare will lead his teammates into all the corners of the rink that they carefully avoided during his absence.
Toronto appears to be the best of the Vast and Silent Majority, although no one has ever accused Maple Leafs Owner Harold Ballard of being very silent. The 13 VSM teams couldn't care less about Montreal's Elite flight; they're only concerned with the NHL's new wild-card alignment for the playoffs. In the past the top three finishers in each of the four divisions qualified for the playoffs. Now only the top two finishers qualify, with the final four playoff positions going to the teams with the best records. Some people call this program the Ranger Plan, in honor of the New York Rangers, who finished fourth in the Patrick Division and missed the playoffs last season, even though they had more points than the second place team in the Sweathog—er, Smythe—Division.
Former schoolteacher Roger Neilson replaces Red Kelly as Toronto's coach. He inherits a team with three All-Stars—Center Darryl Sittler (38 goals), Right Wing Lanny McDonald (46) and Defenseman Borje Salming (66 assists)—and also gets Right Wing Ron Ellis, a former All-Star, who is coming off his two-year retirement. If Mike Palmateer can provide 60 games of steady goaltending, the Leafs could replace Buffalo in the Ronnie Runner-up league.
Chicago also has a new coach, former Los Angeles boss Bob Pulford, but unlike Neilson, Pulford inherits a roster of has-beens and never-wases, all of whom, Pulford discovered, have high-salary, no-cut contracts. Pulford has obtained Wings Battleship Kelly from Pittsburgh and Pierre Plante from St. Louis, and along with Grant Mulvey and Jim Harrison they will do at least some of the boardwork and checking that Pulford demands. Top draft choice Doug Wilson can only bolster a defense that gave Goaltender Tony Esposito fits, not to mention a sunburn from the red light flashing behind him all last season.
Minnesota seems to be engaged upon a solid rebuilding program, one that Chicago ought to emulate. Two years ago the North Stars produced Tim Young, and last season they added Glen Sharpley and Swede Roland Eriksson. Now people aren't calling them the No Stars anymore. Young (95 points), Eriksson (69) and Sharpley (57) led the North Stars into the playoffs a year ago, and if No. 1 draft pick Brad Maxwell can steady a shaky defense, they could finish in first place in the Smythe. VANCOUVER may forever rue the day last season when it traded Defenseman Bob Dailey to Philadelphia. The Canucks are loaded with good young forwards, particularly Dennis Ververgaert, Don Lever, Rick Blight and top draft choice Jere Gillis, but new General Manager Jake Milford will have to trade at least one of them in order to correct glaring weaknesses on defense and in goal.
Ralston Purina has bought the hometown ST. LOUIS Blues and renamed the St. Louis Arena The Checkerdome. Unfortunately, the Blues won't do much checking in the Checkerdome—or anywhere else for that matter, certainly not enough to satisfy new Coach Leo Boivin, one of hockey's best checkers during his 18-year playing career.
As always, ATLANTA is waiting for Tom Lysiak (31 goals, 51 assists last season) to provide needed leadership, and now that he has been appointed captain, Lysiak may finally decide to accept such responsibility. Rookie of the Year Willie Plett (33 goals) had a severe case of bigheadedness during the training schedule, so he may be Lysiak's first patient.
Too many ancient and plump players from the old era remain on the roster of the NEW YORK Rangers, and they still have severe goaltending and defense shortcomings. New Coach Jean-Guy Talbot only hopes that rookies Ron Duguay and Lucien DeBlois can approach the success that Don Murdoch enjoyed as a rookie last season—at least on the ice. Murdoch scored 32 goals in 59 games, but two months ago he was charged with possession of cocaine by Canadian customs authorities and faces a postseason trial.
Once again Marcel Dionne (53 goals and 122 points) and Goaltender Rogatien Vachon (2.72 goals-against average) are the aces of the LOS ANGELES Kings. Gary Sargent developed into an outstanding defenseman a year ago, but the Kings now will pay the price for trading away most of their high draft picks the past few years. Johnny Wilson takes his coach's whistle from Colorado to PITTSBURGH, and his main job will be to keep flashy Center Pierre Larouche in good humor. Between suspensions Larouche slipped from 111 points to 63 last year. WASHINGTON Coach Tommy McVie has had little talent to work with in the past, so he may not know how to handle Robert Picard, the third player selected in the entire amateur draft and already the Capitals' best defenseman. Whatever, McVie's team once again will be the best conditioned and the most gung-ho club in the league.
With Goaltender Gilles Meloche and Defensemen Bob Stewart, Greg Smith and Rick Hampton, CLEVELAND still is a team of promise. One hopes the Barons will not have any financial crises in midseason. COLORADO had two strong young forwards last season in temperamental Wilf Paiement (41 goals) and rookie Center Paul Gardner (30), and now the Rockies have added monster Defenseman Barry Beck, an aggressive puck handler whom they picked over Washington's Picard in the amateur draft. DETROIT General Manager Ted Lindsay invited 83 players to training camp, gave them AGGRESSIVE HOCKEY IS BACK IN TOWN T shirts, and said, "You've heard of Star Wars, well, this is going to be 'Ice Wars.' " Among the training camp survivors are some of hockey's best hatchet men. Bobby Kromm, Detroit's 11th coach in the last eight years, pleaded for nonviolence when he was at Winnipeg, but now he says, "Courses for horses."
But Montreal has all the horses.