About the nicest thing that can be said of the forthcoming NHL season is that the merger with the havoc-wreaking WHA is a fait accompli. Four survivors of the WHA—Winnipeg, Edmonton, Quebec and Hartford—are now members, though sheared ones, of the NHL's bloated 21-team fold. Each of the new clubs was allowed to protect only two skaters and two goalies from its WHA roster, and most of the WHA's stars were swept up by the established clubs that owned their NHL rights. The result: the rich got richer; the poor got reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned; and league parity was set back another five years. In the clubby, myopic world of the NHL, plus ‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºa change, plus c'est la m‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢me chose.
Oddly, last season was a banner one for parity in the NHL. Of the top six teams of 1977-78, only the New York Islanders improved their record. In the meantime, five of the bottom seven teams did better. While the difference between the best (Islanders) and worst (Colorado Rockies) records was still a gargantuan 74 points, the gap was 10 points smaller than it had been in 1977-78. Things appeared to be heading in the right direction.
Unfortunately, that disparity should widen considerably this season. The unbalanced schedule that tended to pit the weak against the weak more often than against the strong, and was largely responsible for the closer competition last season, has been abandoned. Now each team will play every other NHL club four times, twice at home, twice on the road. The Islanders, Philadelphia, the Rangers and Atlanta—Patrick Division rivals who had the first-, fourth-, fifth-and sixth-best records in the NHL in 1978-79—will play each other only four times instead of eight. That alone should ensure that they will pull farther away from the pack.
In most sports, one talks about who will make the playoffs. In hockey, one talks about who will miss them. It isn't easy. The five teams with the worst records will end their seasons on April 6—regardless of their standings in division or conference, which are meaningless under the present format. In all, NHL teams will play a total of 840 regular-season games to eliminate five of 21 teams. Doesn't it just set your blood racing with anticipation? Which five will miss out? How about St. Louis, Vancouver, Hartford, Edmonton and Winnipeg? Which of the surviving 16 will make it through the Spring Classic, the Second Season, the playoffs, to win the Stanley Cup? Well, wriggle into your snuggies, aficionados, it's going to be a long, long winter—and spring. This thing might not be decided until the Fourth of July.
Nowhere is the inbreeding of the NHL more apparent than in the area of coaching changes. Seven of the 17 old clubs have new coaches, but only one, CHICAGO, has a man who has never coached in the NHL before. He is Eddie Johnston, a much-traveled former goaltender, who promises to have the Black Hawks play a more wide-open brand of hockey than they did the past two seasons under Bob Pulford, now the full-time general manager. Johnston takes over a team that has lost a record 16 consecutive playoff games. How much more offensive can you get? The Hawks traded away their most productive scorer, Ivan Boldirev, near the end of last season and received Atlanta captain Tom Lysiak in return. The Windy City gave Lysiak a severe case of the chills, and he played 14 games for the Hawks without scoring a goal. Two players Chicago reclaimed from the Winnipeg Jets, Terry Ruskowski and Rich Preston, should add some life to the offense, and if all else fails, there's always the Golden Jet, Bobby Hull, whom the Hawks have been trying to reacquire from Winnipeg. Hull, 39, would provide some nice nostalgia, especially if he skates on the same line with 39-year-old Stan Mikita. But unfortunately Hull and Mikita would still be the Hawks' best players—save for 36-year-old Tony Esposito, who has signed on for another year in goal.
Atlanta's playoff record is nearly as bad as Chicago's. The Flames have won nary a Stanley Cup series, losing 12 of 13 games. Last year's playoff loss to Toronto cost Coach Fred Creighton his job, and Al MacNeil was lured away from Montreal's front office to replace him. The offense, which already included 100-plus point scorers Bob MacMillan and Guy Chouinard and 35-goal scorer Boldirev, has been bolstered by the addition of Center Kent Nilsson, a Swede (no relation to the Rangers' Ulf) who scored 107 points in each of the past two seasons with Winnipeg. On defense, Phil Russell, who came in the Boldirev-Lysiak trade, will work alongside Brad Marsh, Atlanta's top draft choice in 1978, and MacNeil will attempt to teach the Flames the Montreal-style team defense. Twenty-year-old Pat Riggin, who played last year for Birmingham of the WHA, will give overworked and often inconsistent Dan Bouchard relief in the nets.
Creighton has moved on to BOSTON. "I've got a pretty tough act to follow," he moans and for good reason. He may have some trouble keeping Don (Grapes) Cherry's free-spirited lunch-pail Bruins working together. John Wensink scored 28 goals for Cherry last year, a total he is not likely to accumulate in the rest of his career, and Rick Middleton developed into a 38-goal scorer. On defense, Brad Park has bad knees, Mike Milbury is coming off an undistinguished year, and Gary Doak, Rick Smith and Dick Redmond perform well only within the narrow confines of the Boston Garden rink, which is only 83'x191'—compared to the NHL norm of 85'x200'—and is probably the Bruins' greatest asset. First-round draft picks Raymond Bourque, 18, the top junior defenseman in Quebec last season, and Brad McCrimmon could break in as instant regulars. Championships, however, are not won with rookie defensemen.
Colorado made all the right moves in the off-season, but with 15 wins in 80 games last year, the Rockies had to. They hired Cherry away from the Bruins and hung on to the league's No. 1 pick in the draft by refusing an offer of three Montreal regulars. With that pick, the Rockies selected Rob (Rammer) Ramage, another of Birmingham's "Baby Bulls." Ramage is the best defenseman to come into the NHL since Barry (Bubba) Beck, with whom he will now be paired. These two could save the franchise. True, the offense scored only 210 goals last year, fewest in the league, but if Cherry can get 28 goals out of Wensink, just imagine what he might do with temperamental Wilf Paiement. Though their goaltending is abysmal, the Rockies could be the most improved team in the league.
When Cherry reads about the problems besetting the MONTREAL Canadiens, he sounds a little like Sour Grapes. "Why couldn't all this have happened when I was coaching the Bruins?" he says. In rapid succession during the off-season, MacNeil left. Coach Scotty Bowman defected to Buffalo, Goalie Ken Dryden retired, and Center Jacques Lemaire went off to play and coach in Switzerland. But the Canadiens, who will be going for a record-tying fifth straight Stanley Cup, have a way of landing on their feet. In an outrageously one-sided deal, Montreal sent Pat Hughes, a reserve forward, and minor league Goaltender Bob Holland to Pittsburgh for Denis Herron and a draft choice. Herron, 27, is one of the top five goalies in hockey, and he and Bunny Larocque will give Les Canadiens depth and experience. Although Lemaire will be sorely missed, most especially by linemate Guy Lafleur, Montreal still has the best bunch of centers in the league—Pierre Mondou, Mark Napier, Doug Risebrough, Doug Jarvis and Pierre Larouche. And all those game-controlling defensemen—Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe—are still in town. The biggest imponderable in Montreal is not what is on the bench, but who is behind it. Bernie Geoffrion has left Atlanta's broadcast booth to coach his former team, a selection that has received approval from the fans and, presumably, the Boomer's son, Danny, a WHA refugee who will be trying to make the Canadiens. But this may be the year Montrealers finally realize how good a coach Bowman was. Ze Boom-Boom, he eez a nice fellow, mais....
Bowman takes over as general manager and coach of the BUFFALO Sabres, who tied Colorado for the distinction of being the NHL's least-improved team last year by scoring 17 fewer points than they did in 1977-78 and dropping from fourth to seventh place in the overall standings. Although the personnel remains essentially the same, Bowman has the makings of the sort of winner he molded in Montreal. Don Luce and Craig Ramsay are checking forwards in the manner of Bob Gainey and Doug Jarvis; Richard Martin is a sharpshooter a la Steve Shutt; and Gilbert Perreault, a masterly skater and scorer, could approach Lafleur in overall brilliance if he ever learns to use his teammates. At the very least, the Sabres will boast the most impressive hockey brain trust this side of Moscow. As assistants, Bowman has recruited Roger Neilson, the scholarly ex-Maple Leaf coach, and former Montreal handyman Jimmy Roberts.
There's a little reunion going on across the lake in TORONTO, where owner Harold Ballard, who fired Punch Imlach a decade ago, rehired him as general manager. Imlach promptly named Floyd Smith as the new coach, the same Floyd Smith he fired two years ago when both were with Buffalo. Aside from Darryl Sittler, Larry McDonald and No. 1 draft pick Laurie Boschmann, there are no Leafs who can score with any great proficiency. The defense, led by Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull and Mike Palmateer, who was probably the league's best goalie in the second half of last season, ranked fourth overall. But this team is on its way south, unlike the ticket prices in Maple Leaf Gardens, which Ballard has increased by another 20%.
The suspicion is that if Coach Al Arbour doesn't win it all this year, there will be many new faces on the NEW YORK Islanders by the start of the 1980-81 season. Face 1 would be that of a new coach. The Islanders have been upset before the Stanley Cup finals for two years in a row, and on both occasions Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies and Denis Potvin, all extraordinary during the regular season, performed erratically when it mattered most. Time will tell if this will become a rite of spring on Long Island. Otherwise, the team appears stronger than ever. Defensemen Gerry Hart and Pat Price and Forward Eddie Westfall (now a team broadcaster) are gone, with Hart and Price being replaced by 6'2", 215-pound Dave (Bam-Bam) Langevin, claimed from Edmonton, and rookie Mike Hordy. Another newcomer is 27-year-old Forward Anders Kallur, voted the best player in Sweden last season. Now, wherefore art thou, heart?
The magical playoff performance of the NEW YORK Rangers gave the game a much-needed breath of fresh air last spring, but General Manager-Coach Fred Shero will be hard pressed to match his first season in the Big Apple. Phil Esposito is not likely to log enough ice time to score another 42 goals, and beyond Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, there are no other distinguished forwards, just a raft of rather good ones, including rookie Doug Sulliman. The Rangers are hoping that Goalie John Davidson, who underwent an operation on his sciatic nerve in August, will perform his Stanley Cup heroics all season long. The nagging question: Who will throw the warmup pucks into the balconies now that Nick Fotiu has moved to Hartford?
The tough question in PHILADELPHIA is: How do you replace a retired Bernie Parent? Answer: Let Bernie worry about it. Operating under the theory that it takes two to make a clone, the Flyers have hired both Jacques Plante and Parent to work with their goalies, most notably Phil Myre, whom they acquired from St. Louis. Bobby Clarke has given up his captaincy to become a playing assistant coach, further evidence that, at 30, he is nearing the end of his career. Scoring punch, sorely missing a year ago, figures to be provided by top draft choice Brian Propp, a 5'9", 185-pound left wing who had an eye-popping 94 goals and 100 assists last year as an amateur.
In return for Myre, ST. LOUIS received Center Blake Dunlop and Defenseman Rick Lapointe. The Blues also acquired 24-year-old Bryan Maxwell, a 6'3", 215-pound defenseman who played briefly for Minnesota. The line of Brian Sutter, Wayne Babych and Bernie Federko scored a total of 99 goals last year, and No. 1 draft pick Perry Turn-bull should play regularly at left wing. But the Blues had the league's worst defensive record in 1978-79, and they may well duplicate that dubious achievement this season.
Minnesota was the most improved team in hockey last year, bettering its 1977-78 record by 23 points, thanks largely to its absorption of players from the defunct Cleveland Barons. The North Stars will improve again in '79-'80, this time because of an easier schedule and some first-rate draft choices. Defenseman Craig Hartsburg, yet another of Birmingham's "Baby Bulls," was the sixth player picked; he is a good rushing defenseman and should fit in well with Gary Sargent and Brad Maxwell. If General Manager Lou Nanne lures former Canadien Bill Nyrop out of retirement, Minnesota will have a very solid defense, and Gilles Meloche is an excellent goalie. On offense, Center Bobby Smith, Rookie of the Year in 1978-79, will be helped by another first-round draft choice, Left Wing Tom McCarthy, who scored 69 goals in junior competition.
Washington improved its goal production by 78 last season, the biggest jump in the league. With young players such as forwards Dennis Maruk and Ryan Walter and Defenseman Robert Picard, the Caps have a promising nucleus. The offense will be bolstered by 20-year-old Mike Gartner, who played last season with the Cincinnati Stingers—R.I.P.—and scored 27 goals. Pierre Bouchard, another former Canadien, will help the defense, but the goaltending is likely to be a shortcoming, with Flyer castoff Wayne Stephenson sharing the load with Gary Inness.
The LOS ANGELES Kings and DETROIT Red Wings amicably ended their legal battle over the rights to Center Dale McCourt. In an out-of-court settlement, Detroit kept McCourt but gave up Center Andre St. Laurent and its first-round draft picks in each of the next two years. Pretty steep. The Kings used this year's first-round pick—only the third one they had in their 12-year history—to select Defenseman Jay Wells. Mario Lessard turned in a 3.10 goals-against average, making the fans forget the departed Rogie Vachon, who went to Detroit in the original McCourt deal. And Marcel Dionne is coming off a 130-point season.
Red Wings fans would like to forget not only Vachon but also all of last season. Vachon is back in goal, but now as the No. 2 man behind Jimmy Rutherford. The Wings have traded for Pete Mahovlich to fill the gap at center, and brother Frank, 41, is trying to make the team.
Pittsburgh is in trouble unless 22-year-old Greg Millen can perform the miracles that Herron did in goal. Even if he can, everyone in the front office should be lynched on principle—for making such a risky deal with a team that has won four straight Stanley Cups. VANCOUVER pins its hopes on three players who were sidelined with injuries much of last season: Center Bill Derlago, Goalie Glen Hanlon and Defenseman Kevin McCarthy, acquired from Philadelphia last December for Dennis Ververgaert.
The only area in which these four clubs do not need sympathy is season tickets. EDMONTON has sold more than 15,300, which means that the Edmonton Coliseum will be filled to capacity every time the Oilers play there. The Oilers' main attraction is 18-year-old Wayne Gretzky, who last year signed a 21-year contract at center ice on his birthday. To protect Gretzky, who scored 46 goals and had 64 assists last season, the Oilers gave a second-round draft choice to Minnesota for the Friendly Giant, Dave Semenko, who is billed as the undefeated heavyweight champ of the WHA. The other Dryden, Dave, the WHA's Most Valuable Player in 1978-79, is in goal, but the defense was severely weakened by the loss of Dave Langevin (Islanders) and Paul Shmyr (Minnesota).
Quebec has sold all 10,656 of its seats for the season, and on the ice the Nordiques will fare better than any of their former WHA brothers. They have four exciting forwards in Robbie Ftorek, Marc Tardif, Real Cloutier and Serge Bernier, and NHL veterans Gerry Hart and Dave Farrish will help a generally weak defense. But it will be a while before the Nordiques repeat the back-to-back Stanley Cups won by the Quebec Bulldogs in 1912 and 1913.
Winnipeg won three WHA championships in seven years, but gone are the Ulf Nilssons, Anders Hedbergs, Bobby Hulls, Joe Daleys, Kent Nilssons, Terry Ruskowskis and Rich Prestons who wrought those triumphs. General Manager John Ferguson is trying to replace the departed speed and finesse with youth and brawn. The Jets' first choice in the amateur draft was a winger named Jimmy (the Ox) Mann, and Ferguson expects Mann will add "quite a lot of backbone." Defensemen Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Scott Campbell are both first rate, but this will be the weakest team Winnipeg has put on the ice in five seasons.
When HARTFORD abandons the 7,574-seat Springfield, Mass. Civic Center, sometime around New Year's Day, for the expanded 15,000-seat, newly roofed arena in Hartford, it probably will have the worst record in hockey. Twenty-seven of the Whalers' first 40 games are on the road. Their offense is "led" by 39-year-old Dave Keon—egad!—now that Mark Howe is shifting to defense, where Rick Ley, Gordie Roberts and former Bruin Al Sims give the Whalers their only strength. And, nostalgia fans, it looks as if the Old Man may not make it back. At 51, Gordie Howe is contemplating retirement. And this time he may mean it.
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
STANLEY CUP CHAMPION