The only team that can beat the two-time Stanley Cup champion NEW YORK ISLANDERS this season is the New York Islanders. On the ice, Coach Al Arbour has talent galore. A bad year for Mike Bossy means about 50 goals; Center Bryan Trottier and Defenseman Denis Potvin are the dominant players at their positions in the league; Goaltender Battlin' Billy Smith saves his best for the pressure games; role players abound in Butch Goring, Bob Bourne and Anders Kallur (penalty killers), Bob Nystrom and Clark Gillies (body benders) and Dave Langevin and Ken Morrow (defensive defensemen); and the club's talent pool is so deep that two newcomers, Swedish Defenseman Tomas Jonsson and Center Brent Sutter, may well displace veterans by midseason.
Off the ice, though, G.M. Bill Torrey is perched on a powder keg. The speedy Bourne was a free-agent sitout throughout training camp before signing a five-year contract, worth $1 million, last week. Potvin and Bossy can become free agents after this season, and both want contracts worth $800,000 a year. If Potvin and Bossy get big bucks, Torrey knows that all the other Islanders will line up to renegotiate—with Trottier in the lead. So, the dilemma facing Torrey is this: What price harmony?
Herb Brooks deserves a gold medal just for taking on the challenge of the NEW YORK RANGERS, who haven't won the Stanley Cup in 41 years. Brooks's philosophy certainly seems to clash with that of Madison Square Garden president Sonny Werblin. Brooks wants his Rangers to eat, drink and sleep hockey—and stay in shape. Werblin, on the other hand, likes it when Barry Beck and Ron Duguay prowl the East Side and get their names in the gossip columns.
If Brooks expects another miracle on ice, he'll have to get steady goaltending from the oft-injured John Davidson and solid play from Beck and the other defensemen, including diminutive Finnish rookie Reijo Ruotsalainen. He also will need consistent scoring from Center Mike Rogers, who had 40 goals for Hartford last year, and from Swedish Forwards Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, who have never produced in New York the way they did in Winnipeg. To make Hedberg and Nilsson feel even more at home, Brooks may unretire their old Winnipeg linemate, Bobby Hull.
In an attempt to alter its image, PHILADELPHIA has changed its uniform style, dropping the traditional padded short pants in favor of girdle-type pads and full-length, sweatpants-style coveralls. "To the referees, though, our image will never change," gripes General Manager Keith Allen, who believes that all refs become whistle-happy whenever they officiate Philadelphia games. The Flyers insist they cleaned up their act last season, but they still led the league in penalty minutes for the 10th straight year.
While Bobby Clarke, who burned out by mid-March, remains the Flyers' heart and soul, and Bill Barber (43 goals) is still their best player, it's past time for Center Ken (Rat) Linseman, Wing Paul Holmgren and Defenseman Behn Wilson to shut up and put up—and stay out of the penalty box.
Washington may be first in war and first in peace, but the Capitals have been last or next to last in their division since joining the NHL in 1974. No. 1 draft choice Bobby Carpenter, the 18-year-old wunderkind from Peabody, Mass., centered the No. 1 line for Mike Gartner (48 goals last season) and Captain Ryan Walter (24) in training camp and hardly looked out of place. Aside from a reduction in injuries, what the Caps need most are a defenseman to operate their woeful power play and some consistent goaltending from Mike Palmateer, who was terribly erratic in 1980-81. If they get all that, the Caps may make the playoffs at last.
As always, PITTSBURGH is searching for a goaltender. Coach Eddie Johnston, an old goalie himself, thought he had a quality net-minder last season in Greg Millen, but Millen opted for free agency and signed with Hartford. None of the candidates for Millen's job has ever been confused with an NHL goaltender. Johnston has plenty of scorers—Rick Kehoe (55 last season), Paul Gardner (34) and Peter Lee (30)—at his disposal, and Randy Carlyle won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman last year because of his offensive skills (16 goals, 67 assists), not his defensive work. What it all means is that the Penguins will be on the short side of a lot of 7-5 shootouts.
On the occasion of his 30th birthday a few weeks ago, Guy Lafleur decided to sleep in and skip an 8:30 a.m. practice scheduled by new MONTREAL Coach Bob Berry. So what else was new? The inmates had been running the asylum in Montreal since Scotty Bowman moved his dictatorship to Buffalo after the Canadiens' won their fourth straight Stanley Cup in 1979. Boom-Boom Geoffrion threw up his hands and quit as coach 30 games into the 1979-80 season, and his successor, Claude Ruel, was given the Rodney Dangerfield treatment by the Canadiens until he quit in disgust last April after Edmonton routed Montreal in the playoffs.
But Berry is of the Bowman persuasion. As coach of the L.A. Kings the last three seasons, he fined any player who showed up with a suntan. Berry hit Lafleur with a $300 fine, and while that sum is merely loose change for the Flower, Berry's message was clear: I'm running the show, boys.
Berry, however, has hardly inherited a powerhouse. Lafleur missed 29 games because of various injuries last season and scored only 27 goals. He needs a playmaking center to be effective, and there are no young Beliveaus or Lemaires wearing the rouge, blanc et bleu these days.
Defensively, the Big Three is just a memory—Serge Savard has retired and Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe are coming off poor seasons—and the big names now are Rod Langway and Brian Engblom. As for goalies, Richard Sevigny, Denis Herron and Rick Walmsley don't add up to one Ken Dryden. Despite its problems, Montreal won't be embarrassed in the division, but the Cup is out of the question.
Bowman is back behind the bench in BUFFALO, which finished No. 2 overall when he was there in 1979-80 but slumped to fifth last season when he stuck to his general manager's duties. He has phased out some of those faded Sabres whose emotionless, if occasionally effective, style put the fans to sleep. His building blocks include Tony McKegney (37 goals last season), J.F. Sauve, Gilles Hamel, Alan Haworth, Steve Patrick and Randy Cunneyworth. Danny Gare, Mr. True Grit, who scored 46 goals in 1980-81, will shoulder the offensive load until Gilbert Perreault recovers from his broken ankle, which may not be until mid-November. Bowman's doghouse also has a new main occupant these days, Goaltender Bob Sauve, so Don Edwards probably will see far more action than Sauve.
Let's look at BOSTON's regress chart. Lost in the Stanley Cup finals in 1978. Lost in the semifinals in 1979. Lost in the quarterfinals in 1980. Lost in the preliminary round in 1981. Worse still, the Adams will be a skater's division, and the Bruins have more muckers than skaters. Rick Middleton (44 goals last year) is a high-quality forward, and Defenseman Ray Bourque has made the All-Star team each of his two NHL seasons. Bourque is exceptional offensively but could improve his defensive play. In an attempt to halt their slide, the Bruins may break in as many as six rookies, including Wing Norm Leveille, who reminds some Bostonians of a young Yvan Cournoyer. It will help if Goalie Rogie Vachon, now 36, reminds Bostonians of a young Rogie Vachon.
Quebec avoided goaltending troubles when it re-signed free-agent holdout Dan Bouchard last week. Quebec was struggling last Jan. 30 when Bouchard was acquired from Calgary, but the Nordiques then won 19 of their last 30 games. On offense, Quebec has as much firepower as any NHL team, with natural scorers Jacques Richard (52 goals last season); Michel Goulet (32); Real Cloutier (15 in 34 games); and the Stastny brothers, Peter and Anton, who had 39 goals apiece after defecting from Czechoslovakia. Now a third Stastny brother has defected to Quebec, Marian, 28, and he's supposed to be the best scorer in the family. Bouchard no doubt decided he would be better off playing with these shooters than against them.
A Save the Whalers campaign has been launched in HARTFORD, where 34-year-old Larry Pleau moved from assistant coach to interim coach to head coach and general manager—all in the time it takes to learn how to pronounce his name (plo). The Whalers should be saved from themselves. Pleau's only positive move was stealing free-agent Goaltender Greg Millen from Pittsburgh. Disaster move No. 1: packaging his 1982 No. 1 draft pick—hello, Brian Bellows—in the deal that brought Rick MacLeish from Philadelphia. MacLeish is a freewheeler who does his checking only at the bank. Disaster move No. 2: trading Center Mike Rogers, a 40-goal scorer, to the Rangers last week for three players who would not have made New York's roster.
Two years ago ST. LOUIS advanced from 16th to 10th in the overall standings, and last season moved up to second. Trouble was, the Blues then had a short playoff life last spring, being upset by the Rangers in the quarterfinals. As for continued improvement, St. Louis hardly needs much of that from its forwards. Right Wing Wayne Babych scored 54 goals, and his playmaker, Center Bernie Federko, had 73 assists to go with 31 goals. In all, five Blues forwards had more than 30 goals, and five others scored 20 or more.
The defense, however, could stand some improvement. Particularly needed are fresh young legs to help such slow-foots as Ed Kea and Gerry Hart. So, Coach Red Berenson probably won't hesitate to use newcomer Rick Wilson, 19, the team's No. 1 draft pick in 1980.
Where the Blues have to improve the most is in their philosophy, which is largely determined by President and General Manager Emile Francis. When Francis ran the Rangers, they invariably performed superbly during the regular season but flopped in the playoffs. One reason: Francis overworked his goaltender, Eddie Giacomin, from October to March, and come April, Giacomin was worn out. The same thing happened last year to Blues' Goalie Mike Liut. After playing in 61 of 80 games, Liut had established himself as the NHL's best goaltender, but he was battered and frayed at the edges. Then, in the playoffs, he was more of a sieve than a stopper. St. Louis, think of it this way: The less Liut plays from October to March, the more he—and all the Blues—may get to play in April...and maybe even in May.
The Blues will be hard pressed to stave off MINNESOTA. The North Stars finished ninth overall in 1980-81 but then aged well in the playoffs, becoming the youngest team ever to appear in the Stanley Cup finals. The wonder of it all wasn't that such Kiddie Korps performers as Goalie Don Beaupre and Forwards Steve Christoff, Dino Ciccarelli, Neal Broten and Brad Palmer played so well, but that the North Stars went so far without much scoring help from Steve Payne and Al MacAdam. The two combined for 84 goals two years ago but got only 51 last season.
On defense, the North Stars suffered from a leadership crisis a year ago, but now General Manager Lou Nanne has provided Craig Hartsburg and friends with a general type who wears not one, not two but three Stanley Cup rings: Bill Nyrop, 29, who retired from the Montreal Canadiens three years ago. Nyrop may well prove to be the best friend goalies Beaupre and Gilles Meloche have ever had.
One thing's certain: Tony Esposito didn't have any best friends on the CHICAGO defense last season. Poor Tony had the worst goals-against average (3.75) of his 13-year NHL career. But that was hardly his fault. The young Black Hawk defensemen—Keith Brown, Doug Wilson, Bob Murray et al.—prefer to masquerade as so many Bobby Orrs when they ought to be protecting Esposito from the opposition.
Forwards Darryl Sutter, who had 40 goals, and Denis Savard, who had 28 goals and 47 assists, lead an attack that last season produced 304 goals, the most in Chicago history. Each of Coach Keith Magnuson's three lines has one 30-goal scorer, but Esposito would be happier if each line also had one good backchecker.
Toronto has been rebuilding for almost 15 seasons, but it still needs help at every position and in the front office. Old hands Darryl Sittler and Borje Salming have slowed down, and no young Sittlers or Salmings are lurking around Maple Leaf Gardens. Cantankerous Owner Harold Ballard will have a few mouthfuls of bad words to say about his team before the season is too far along.
Neither WINNIPEG nor DETROIT will make the playoffs, unless, that is, Toronto plays, as hockey scouts like to say, more than worse. So, Winnipeg probably will get to participate in the Brian Bellows Derby. Not so Detroit, which exchanged 1982 No. 1 picks with Minnesota to get Wing Don Murdoch, a scorer on the ice but trouble off it, and Defenseman Greg Smith. The Red Wings have no strengths, just weaknesses—everywhere.
As for the Jets, G.M. John Ferguson seems on the right track. Once again he stubbornly refused to trade his No. 1 pick and drafted 18-year-old Center Dale Hawerchuk, the best junior in Canada. Hawerchuk should fit in well with last year's draft choices, Defensemen Dave Babych and Moe Mantha, and former U.S. Olympian Dave Christian, as Ferguson builds with youth. Ferguson did make two trades, acquiring Goaltenders Doug Soetaert from the Rangers and Ed Staniowski from the Blues. While neither is a Liut, new Winnipeg Coach Tom Watt will sleep better at night than his predecessors did.
When the Flames belonged to Atlanta, they spent more time playing golf than hockey—with predictable results: The Atlanta Flames never won a playoff series. But last season the franchise moved to CALGARY, where the golf courses usually are under snow for most of the hockey season, and the Flames had nothing else to do except play hockey—with predictable results: the Calgary Flames won not one but two playoff series. In fact, they probably would have beaten Minnesota in the semifinals if their most indispensable player, Center Kent Nilsson, hadn't been suddenly rendered useless because of shoulder and knee injuries. Nilsson, the Swedish "Magic Man" whom none other than Wayne Gretzky calls "the most talented player in the league," finished third in scoring with 49 goals and 82 assists, but had only one assist in the Flames' six-game series against the North Stars.
Nilsson is healthy again, and except for Finnish Defenseman Kari Eloranta, Calgary starts the season with almost the same team that last year finished seventh overall and had the third-best power play. Whether the Flames end the season with that team is another question. G.M. Cliff Fletcher wants more speed, and the only Calgary untouchables probably are Nilsson and Defenseman Paul Reinhart.
As LOS ANGELES discovered one more time, last spring, one-line teams don't survive long in the playoffs. To be fair, the Kings' high-flying Triple Crown Line of Marcel Dionne (58 goals), Dave Taylor (47) and Charlie Simmer (56 in 65 games) went kaput when Simmer broke his right leg on March 2, but the club was custom-built around that line and couldn't cope with adversity. So, L.A.'s joy at finishing fourth in the regular season was gone in the sorrow of its first-round playoff wipe-out by the Rangers.
Simmer may not be ready to play until Thanksgiving, and the physical status of Rick Martin, who joined the Kings last March but played only two games because of an injured right knee, is still clouded. New Coach Parker MacDonald prays that second-year Defenseman Larry Murphy has a season as productive as last year's (16 goals, 60 assists). It also would help if rookie Doug Smith takes over a center spot, and if youngsters Steve Bozek, Jim Fox and Greg Terrion develop scoring consistency. In addition, the Kings could use a capable backup for overworked Goaltender Mario Lessard, who wilted in the playoffs.
If Minnesota is the NHL's best young team, the best up-and-coming club is EDMONTON. Obscured by the excitement over Wayne Gretzky, whose 164 points last year were 89 more than any other Oiler had, is the fact that G.M. and Coach Glen Sather is building a strong supporting cast around his child star. Right Wing Glenn Anderson (30 goals, 23 assists in 1980-81) has star quality himself, as does 20-year-old Defenseman Paul Coffey, an excellent puck handler. Goalie Andy Moog, 21, was a hero in the Oilers' playoff sweep of Les Canadiens, and with No. 1 pick Grant Fuhr in reserve, Edmonton's goaltending seems solid.
In keeping with the tradition of a team that in its first five seasons had four owners, six coaches and 101 players. COLORADO once again will offer the most new faces in the NHL, starting with Coach Bert Marshall, who succeeds Billy MacMillan, now the general manager. Both learned the ropes in the Islanders' organization. A new defenseman is Bob Lorimer, a former teammate of Marshall's and a regular on two Islander championship teams. He's vastly underrated, mainly because he sticks to defense and rarely rushes the puck. New forwards include Brent Ashton, who had 18 goals for Vancouver last season, and Dwight Foster, who had 24 for Boston. New imports include Veli-Pekka Ketola, Jukka Porvari and Tapio Levo, all of Finland, and Peter Gustavsson and Christer Kellgren, both of Sweden. Semi-new faces include Goalie Chico Resch and Center Steve Tambellini, who came from the Islanders last March. Holdovers Lanny McDonald (35 goals) and Rob Ramage probably spent the training season introducing themselves around.
Vancouver also went the European import route, securing Jiri Bubla and Ivan Hlinka from Czechoslovakia and Defenseman Anders Eldebrink from Sweden. Unfortunately, the one Canuck who was going to protect the Europeans, Defenseman Harold Snepsts, sprained a knee in training camp and may not play until November. The best news for the Canucks is that Goaltender Glen Hanlon, who appeared in only 105 games the last three seasons, seems healthy for a change. Hanlon has had major surgery on both shoulders and both knees. No dummy, he married a nurse.