As the 1978-79 season begins, the NHL finds itself with six new coaches and minus one team. Gone are the financially strapped Cleveland Barons, whose merger with the Minnesota North Stars reduces the league's franchises to a nice, unround 17. In a rules change intended to "maintain the continuous flow of play," the NHL has begun imposing penalties on goaltenders who freeze the puck in areas other than the crease. Meanwhile, after some fast and furious trading and drafting, the yawning gap between the NHL's haves and have-nots seems to be narrowing. With the retirement of Montreal General Manager—and guiding genius—Sam Pollock, who steered Les Canadiens to nine Stanley Cup championships in 14 years, rivals even have reason to hope that the Canadiens might someday be beaten. However, unless Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and Ken Dryden suddenly decide to join Pollock in retirement, it will not happen this season. As for happenings, the highlight of the season will be February's Super Showdown, a best-of-three series between the NHL All-Star team and the Soviet Union's National team at Madison Square Garden. "Our league's prestige will be on the line in those games against the Soviets," says one NHL official. "If we lose that series, we might as well call off the rest of our season and present them with the Stanley Cup."
As though the departure of Sam Pollock wasn't enough, MONTREAL was also hit by the unexpected retirement—at age 26—of sturdy fourth Defenseman Bill Nyrop, who departed with his new bride and his memories after pronouncing himself "satisfied" with having accumulated three NHL championship rings in as many seasons. No sooner was Nyrop gone than Brian Engblom, the fifth defenseman, suffered a fractured jaw in an exhibition game, courtesy of an elbow thrown by Philadelphia's Paul Holmgren. Oh well, until Engblom returns next month, the Canadiens will just have to call on their talented sixth, seventh or eighth defensemen to help All-Stars Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe protect goalies Ken Dryden and Bunny Larocque, who shared the Vezina trophy for lowest goals-against average the past two seasons.
Winning the Vezina is of highest priority to Coach Scotty Bowman, who keeps telling his troops that if the defense is sound, "the scoring will take care of itself." And so it does, thanks to three-time NHL scoring leader—and last year's MVP—Guy Lafleur, and sharpshooters Steve Shutt, Yvan Cournoyer, Pierre Mondou and Jacques Lemaire. Add Bob Gainey, the Frank Selke Trophy winner, as the game's best defensive forward; face-off whiz Doug Jarvis; and Mark Napier, a WHA defector who scored 33 goals last season, and you have a juggernaut unlikely to be derailed by anything less than a series of injuries or some serious post-Pollock, front-office infighting. Unlike Nyrop, the remaining Canadiens are not satisfied with three straight Stanley Cups. "With what we have, if we all do our jobs, we can only improve," says Robinson. Which is quite a statement for a team that has lost just 29 of its last 240 regular-season games.
Boston awarded Terry O'Reilly a fat new contract that enables him to dine at Loch Ober's any time he wants to. Not on O'Reilly's life. The hardworking right wing prefers the company of the other members of the Bruins' Lunch-pail A.C., hard-nosed operatives like Don Marcotte and Stan Jonathan. And now the Bruins also have rookie Al Secord, a checking specialist left wing whose taste for the corners makes him, as Coach Don Cherry puts it, "a Boston-style player." Seeking another offensive-minded defenseman to help Brad Park, the Bruins traded for veteran Dick Redmond, and with Park now out until December following knee surgery last week, Redmond will have to quarterback Boston's power play. The Bruins hope for much-needed speed from young Dwight Foster, a center who played only 14 games last year as a rookie before undergoing his knee surgery. If Foster gets into gear, if aging Center Jean Ratelle has another good season, if 6'5" Center Peter McNab can match his 41-goal season and if Park and Goalie Gerry Cheevers come back strong from their knee operations, Boston can dream of meeting Montreal in the Stanley Cup finals for a third straight year.
"There's no reason to panic yet—maturity takes time," says NEW YORK ISLANDERS Coach Al Arbour, whose team won the Patrick Division in its sixth season, only to be upset by Toronto in the 1978 Stanley Cup quarterfinals. Powered by Denis Potvin, the Norris Trophy winner as the best defenseman, All-Star Center Bryan Trottier and 50-goal scorer Mike Bossy—Rookies of the Year in '74, '76 and '78, respectively—the Islanders nevertheless lacked leadership and were loath to match muscle with the Maple Leafs. The arrival of wing John Tonelli from the WHA will help in the muscle department, but Arbour still is searching for a leader. In time he may not have to look past Stefan Persson, the Swedish defenseman who had a spectacular (50 assists), if unheralded, rookie season. On the whole, standing pretty much pat may have been the only prudent course to take: with the debt-ridden Islanders changing ownership to stay afloat, General Manager Bill Torrey was up to his ubiquitous bow tie in off-season financial scrambling.
There is such a thing in hockey as a one-goal-and-a-cloud-of-elbows strategy, and TORONTO employs it to perfection. Let the wondrous Darryl Sittler or the sharpshooting Lanny McDonald, the Maple Leafs' only authentic scoring threats, light up the red bulb, and checking specialists like Jimmy Jones and Jerry Butler and defensemen like Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull immediately go into a shell to protect the lead. If rivals show signs of impatience, they are straightened out in a hurry by combative wingers Tiger Williams and Dan Maloney and Defenseman Dave Hutchinson, who was signed as a free agent to help direct traffic in front of Goaltender Mike Palmateer. It sometimes makes for dull hockey, but the knowledgeable fans in Maple Leaf Gardens rightly credit Coach Roger Neilson with molding his generally unspectacular personnel into a contender.
Nobody can accuse PHILADELPHIA of complacency. Wielding the broom after the Flyers were rudely eliminated from the Stanley Cup semifinals in five games—one more than they lasted the previous year—GM Keith Allen traded veterans Orest Kindrachuk, Tom Bladon and Ross Lonsberry for Pittsburgh's first-round draft choice, which he used to grab 6'3", 210-pound Behn Wilson, a lippy and rugged defenseman. With a first-round pick extracted from the New York Rangers as compensation for the loss of Coach Fred Shero, Allen drafted 20-year-old Center Ken Linseman, a speedster who had scored 38 goals for Birmingham in the WHA. In exhibition play, however, Linseman distinguished himself mainly by pulling up the jersey of Ranger Ulf Nilsson during a disgraceful donnybrook at Madison Square Garden and then laughing at the Swede for not fighting back. With its own first-round selection—shades of Sam Pollock, that makes three first-round picks—the Flyers added Danny Lucas, a right winger of promise. To get more scoring punch on the wings, Rick MacLeish, a 31-goal scorer last season, has been switched from center to left wing on a line with Captain Bobby Clarke and the pugnacious Holmgren. For all that, unless Goalie Bernie Parent can return to form and stay there, new Coach Bob McCammon is unlikely to take the Flyers any further in the playoffs than Shero did last season.
It is not true that DETROIT Center Dale McCourt, the slick playmaker who led the Red Wings in goals (33) and points (72) as a rookie last season, has changed his name to Dale Supreme Court. But by winning an injunction to block an arbitrator from awarding him to Los Angeles, McCourt has set the stage for a lot of far-reaching litigation. In the meantime, Detroit enjoys the services of both McCourt and Goaltender Rogie Vachon, whose signing with the Red Wings as a free agent had prompted the arbitrator to send McCourt to the L.A. Kings as compensation. Vachon gives the Red Wings the sort of All-Star-caliber goaltending that last season's Cinderella team conspicuously lacked. Nevertheless the Red Wings doubled their win total. Vachon and Detroit's second-year stars, McCourt, Defenseman Reed Larson and scrappy Winger Paul Woods, are joined by another of last season's surprises, Center Andre St. Laurent, who scored 32 goals after being acquired from the Islanders last October, and by first-round draft choice Willie Huber, a 6'5" German-born defenseman who should shore up Detroit's shaky defense.
Buffalo failed to make changes although G.M. Punch Imlach had solemnly promised a wholesale—and much-needed—shakeup following the Sabres' usual el foldo in the Stanley Cup playoffs. And so the Sabres will once again try to prove that dashing Gilbert Perreault can locate the net when it counts, and that wingers other than feisty Captain Danny Gare will venture into the corners. Paging Richard Martin. Buffalo must also find somebody—Bob Sauve?—to provide relief for talented but overworked Goalie Don Edwards. Rookies Larry Playfair, a body-thumping defenseman, and Tony McKegney, a big, fast winger, both merit ice time, but this raises the basic and nagging question: Does Coach Marcel Pronovost dare allow some of his tired but high-priced stars to languish on the bench?
Already the league's biggest club, ATLANTA adds some much-needed quickness and scoring ability with the arrival from Pittsburgh of speedy Gene Carr and 40-goal scorer Jean Pronovost. These two join the likes of Tom Lysiak, Eric Vail and Willi Plett to give the Flames what Coach Fred Creighton calls "as good a set of forwards as any team in the league—except for Montreal." It only remains for Atlanta's defensemen to stop making costly mistakes, and because they are mostly young fellows like Dick Mulhern, Dave Shand and first-round draft choice Brad Marsh—none of them is older than 23—they just might. Then the Flames will be one of hockey's best teams, which they briefly gave promise of becoming before Detroit stunned them in the opening round of last spring's playoffs.
The situation in CHICAGO is pure soap opera. Can Bobby Orr, hockey's fabulous invalid, overcome six knee operations and play again? Can Center Stan Mikita, the NHL's oldest player, coax another productive season out of his 38-year-old body? Stay tuned as the Black Hawks see how far they can go with effective penalty killing, the goaltending prowess of Tony Esposito and defensive depth that would be greatly enhanced, of course, by Orr, whose left knee has held up so far. The Black Hawks need more goals from their wingers, none of whom scored more than 23 last season. Top draft pick Tim Higgins should score at least 23 himself. "We want to build with young players, the way Dallas has in football," G.M.-Coach Bob Pulford insists, thinking of Higgins and 21-year-old Defenseman Doug Wilson.
Not since P. T. Barnum brought over Jenny Lind have folks in NEW YORK been so excited over a Swedish import. Or, in this case, two of them. Plucked out of the WHA by the Rangers for $900,000 apiece over two years, Center Ulf Nilsson and Right Winger Anders Hedberg add new menace to an attack that also includes 40-goal scorer Pat Hickey and Center Phil Esposito, whose 634 career goals place him second only to Gordie Howe. And flashy Right Winger Don Murdoch, suspended from the NHL following a drug bust, may be reinstated at midseason. Nick Fotui, who was born in Staten Island and once won a Police Athletic League boxing championship, will play bodyguard for the Swedes. The defense and goaltending are leaky, as usual, but Toronto's Neilson predicts that under Shero, the new $250,000-a-year general manager and coach, the Rangers will be the NHL's most improved club.
Undeterred by the unfavorable precedent set by Kaiser-Fraser, MINNESOTA hopes that the pooling of resources by the North Stars and now-defunct Barons, two chronic losers, will produce one winner. Ex-Baron Gilles Meloche, an able goalie, and Dennis Maruk, a stylish center, will help the reconstituted North Stars, a club further strengthened by the arrival of free-agent Defenseman Gary Sargent from Los Angeles and Center Bobby Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the amateur draft. But new Coach Harry Howell may find a playoff berth elusive: the No Stars, as they have been called in recent years, were assigned to the tough Adams Division, meaning they must face Boston, Buffalo and Toronto eight times each.
Centers Marcel Dionne and Butch Goring are still around to put the puck in the nets, but LOS ANGELES otherwise looks as if it had been hit by a Charley Finley-style liquidation sale. Owner Jack Kent Cooke kept his wallet closed, so gone are free agents Vachon (to Detroit), Hutchinson (Toronto) and Sargent (Minnesota). Owing to the McCourt imbroglio, what new Coach Bob Berry has so far received in return—mainly Defensemen Brian Glennie and Rick Hampton and Forward Steve Jensen—is not nearly enough. Ron Grahame, acquired from Boston at the expense of the Kings' No. 1 draft pick next spring, will try to replace Vachon.
In trading its first-round draft choice to Philadelphia for veterans Kindrachuk, Bladon and Lonsberry, PITTSBURGH seemed to be going the George Allen route. In dispatching Defenseman Dave Burrows to Toronto, however, the Penguins took in exchange Center George Ferguson and Defenseman Randy Carlyle, both younger players. The team's new owners are anxious to stanch the club's flow of red ink, and obviously crave change and plenty of it. Although Coach John Wilson promises that Pittsburgh will make the playoffs for the first time in four years, it may take longer than he thinks for the parts to mesh, especially if Center Gregg Sheppard, acquired from Boston, sticks by his refusal to report.
Season-ticket sales have declined in VANCOUVER for the first time in the franchise's nine-year history, and it is hard to believe that the Canucks' lurid new orange-yellow-and-black uniforms, recommended as "more positive" by marketing psychologists, will bring back the stragglers. But the addition of Center Bill Derlago, the No. 4 pick overall in the amateur draft, and three imports from Sweden's national team—playmaker Thomas Gradin and mobile Defensemen Lars Zetterstrom and Lars Lindgren—just might do the trick. New Coach Harry Neale says that rookie Goalie Glen Hanlon "could be not just good but great."
Vancouver will battle COLORADO for the second playoff spot in the weak-sister Smythe Division, a struggle the Rockies won last year with a 19-40-21 record. With a full season under his belt, bruising young Defenseman Barry Beck figures to get better, if that's possible. Meanwhile, the Rockies hope for consistency from Right Winger Wilf Paiement, who slumped to 31 goals a year ago, and for the successful return of Center Paul Gardner, who had scored 30 goals when he fractured his back just after midseason. But the youthful Rockies continue to suffer bad luck. Top draft choice Mike Gillis, a winger, tore knee ligaments in an intrasquad game, and won't play for three months.
That noise you hear coming from the Checkerdome in ST. LOUIS is not somebody munching Rice Chex. It's Steve Durbano and Gord Gallant, a couple of tough guys just in from the WHA, knocking people around. This is meant to camouflage the fact that, aside from undependable Center Mike (Shaky) Walton, ironman Garry Unger and first-round draftee Wayne Babych, there are no Blues with anything resembling a scoring touch. St. Louis will vie for the distinction of the NHL's worst record with WASHINGTON, whose win total steadily increased during its first three seasons from 8 to 11 to 24. Then last season, despite the emergence of Defensemen Robert Picard and Rick Green, the Capitals slipped to 17 wins. That sound you hear coming from Landover, Md. is new Coach Danny Belisle scratching his head.