How good are the NEW YORK ISLANDERS? If you took their four best players and put them on the dark side of the moon, the Islanders would still be one of the top four teams in the NHL. So much for depth. Bring those players back—Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Bill Smith—and you have a dynasty. The question isn't whether the Islanders will win their fourth straight Stanley Cup, but rather, how can they fail? Talent, discipline, speed, toughness, character, coaching—you could go on and on. The only way this team can lose is to be stopped cold by a goaltender—as Pittsburgh's Michel Dion nearly did last spring in the first round of the playoffs. Moreover, the Islanders have traded for New Jersey's first-round 1983 draft choice, which could turn out to be the top pick. The only weakness on this club is its slogan: BRING FOURTH THE CUP.
The NEW YORK RANGERS needed most of last season to become comfortable playing under Coach Herb Brooks' system of constant motion, but by the playoffs they may well have been the second-best team in the league. Barry Beck seems on the verge of becoming the NHL's top defenseman, and if Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson can stay healthy—they played four games between them in 1981-82, when both underwent knee surgery—the offense will be much improved. Goalie John Davidson played only two games last season because of a bad back, and the Rangers are hoping he can return to the form he showed in 1978-79, when he led the Rangers past the Islanders and into the Stanley Cup finals. It could happen again.
To add mobility to their sluggish defense, the PHILADELPHIA FLYERS traded pesty Ken Linseman to Hartford for Mark Howe, long considered one of the game's most promising players. Howe, who's 27 now, is at the crossroads, and it will be interesting to see whether he plays at the level that has always been expected of him. At center the Flyers have two old, slow pros, Bobby Clarke and Darryl Sittler, and 22-year-old Ron Flockhart, who last season added a strange new dimension to the Philadelphia attack—speed. The fans in the Spectrum were so shocked, they thought up a name for it: Flocky Hockey. Gone are the days of the Broad Street Bullies—Rocky Hockey—as the Flyers try to change their image.
Already a shoo-in for Executive of the Year honors is David Poile, rookie GM for the WASHINGTON CAPITALS. Within 10 days of taking the job, he plucked the panicky Canadiens of their defense with a deal that might make the Caps the most improved team in hockey. Poile sent Rick Green and Ryan Walter to Montreal for Rod Langway and Brian Engblom, two of the NHL's best defensemen, and Doug Jarvis, a legendary face-off specialist who plays Trottier tougher than any other center. Trots now will see him seven times a season instead of three. Complementing the instant defense will be a plethora of goals. One-way player Dennis Maruk had 60 last year. Mike Gartner scored 35 and Bobby Carpenter had 32. Over the summer Washington acquired 31-year-old Milan Novy, the top Czechoslovakian scorer of all time. Pat Riggin, who came from Calgary, is only so-so in goal, but Washington has enough going for it to make the playoffs for the first time.
Which means the PITTSBURGH PENGUINS will miss them. Pittsburgh has a fine coach in Eddie Johnston, an All-Star goalie in Dion, and a power play that scored a league-record 99 goals last season. Beyond that, the Penguins have too many holes. One telling stat: This was the first year that the Penguins have had a first-and a second-round draft choice since 1976.
Don't look for the 1,800-mile shift East from Denver to improve the NEW JERSEY DEVILS, the sorriest team in the league. Instead of having the top pick in this year's amateur draft, they had Forward Dwight Foster, for whom they had dealt the choice to Boston in the summer of '81. Foster's plus-minus performance last season was-53, the worst in the NHL. Stung by that deal and one in which they traded their first choice in 1983 to the Islanders (for Bob Lorimer), Coach and General Manager Billy MacMillan pulled off a real biggie. He traded his one high-quality skater, Rob Ramage, to St. Louis for the Blues' No. 1 pick this year and next. MacMillan used St. Louis' 1982 selection to obtain Rocky Trottier, Bryan's brother. But Rocky missed most of last season with an injured knee, and the knee went kaput again in training camp.
The player the BOSTON BRUINS selected with New Jersey's first choice was 18-year-old Gord Kluzak, a defenseman who goes 6'4", 221. Skating around him on the tiny Boston Garden rink is going to be no mean feat. Defense is the team's forte, with Ray Bourque, Mike Milbury, Mike O'Connell and Brad Park. Goaltending, a minus last season, will be much improved with the addition of Pete Peeters and 20-year-old Mike Moffat. But Boston needs to develop a power play if it is to challenge the Islanders. Last season only five clubs scored fewer power-play goals than the Bruins, who had 65. Rick Middleton had 51 goals in 1981-82, and rookie Center Barry Pederson scored 44. However, the typical Boston goal is still a rebound off the shinbone.
The success formula for the MONTREAL CANADIENS used to be: Win the Vezina Trophy (least goals allowed) and you'll win the Stanley Cup. It hasn't worked the past two years; the Canadiens were humiliated in the first round of postseason play in both 1980-81 and 1981-82 despite giving up the fewest goals in the regular season. Now, Managing Director Irving Grundman has evidently scrapped the formula. The day after he made The Trade that sent Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin to Washington, Grundman dealt Doug Risebrough, a solid defensive forward, to Calgary for second- and third-round draft choices. "How are we going to get the puck out of our end?" asks Goalie Rick Wamsley. Good question. Grundman's answer is Gaston Gingras, Gilbert Delorme and Robert Picard, three inexperienced defensemen who'll give veteran Larry Robinson fits. The Canadiens expect Ryan Walter, who arrived with Rick Green from Washington, to kill penalties, beef up their power play and rejuvenate Guy Lafleur, who has slumped to 27 goals in each of his last two injury-plagued seasons. Lafleur threatened to play this season in Japan unless his contract was renegotiated. Montreal complied, but Lafleur may still wish he'd slipped into his kimono and gone.
The team that ruined Montreal's summer vacation was the QUEBEC NORDIQUES who followed their playoff upset of the Canadiens with a stunning defeat of Boston. Leading the Nordiques are the Stastnys three, Peter, Anton and Marian, who staged a fraternal wildcat strike in training camp in an effort to renegotiate their contracts. Quebec has offered to talk to Peter—one of the truly great players in hockey—but has said ne to Anton and Marian. The Nordiques have one of the league's most potent offenses, with Michel Goulet (42 goals), Marc Tardif (39) and Réal Cloutier (37) adding some French flair to the Czech connection. But if Quebec is to climb in the standings, it will have to cut down on its goals-against, which stood at 345 in 1981-82. Dan Bouchard, the goalie, is a streak player, and if he gets hot in the playoffs, the Nordiques could beat anyone.
The big story out of the BUFFALO SABRES' training camp this fall was Phil Housley, the club's No. 1 draft choice. Coach and General Manager Scotty Bowman has called him "the nearest thing to Bobby Orr I've seen." Not bad for an 18-year-old kid from St. Paul. Housley is only 5'10", 180 pounds, but he should find a spot on the team, which Bowman is in the process of rebuilding. Housley can play either center or defense. Bowman seems to like versatility. He has alternated between coaching and managing the Sabres over the past three years, with the apparent result that he has done neither job well. Bowman will start behind the bench again, but bets are that Assistant Coach Red Berenson will take over by New Year's. The Sabres' biggest shortcoming last season was lack of firepower. Mike Foligno and Dale McCourt had 33 goals apiece, followed by Gil Perreault's 31. However, Buffalo was 16th in scoring overall. Don't look for much from the Sabres for two or three years, when the young players begin to mature.
Speaking of teams not to look for—ladies and gentlemen, we give you the HARTFORD WHALERS. Last year Hartford traded its top draft choice for over-the-hill Rick MacLeish, and by midseason MacLeish was gone. This summer's gem was Mark Howe for Ken Linseman, whom the Whalers promptly dealt to Edmonton for Risto Siltanen. Risto Siltanen? For Mark Howe? Golly, golly, golly. For excitement, Hartford fans will be able to watch Blaine Stoughton and Pierre Larouche try to find their way back into the defensive zone while the team struggles to match the 21-41-18 record it had each of the last two seasons.
April 1982. Opening round of the playoffs, the EDMONTON OILERS vs. the Los Angeles Kings, who had finished 48 points behind Edmonton. The series is tied at one game each. Score: 4-0 Oilers in the second period. The Kings are struggling during a man-up situation. Suddenly the Edmonton bench begins booing the Los Angeles power play. Cocky? You bet. Immature? You said it. After giving up yet another goal, the Kings come back to win 6-5. They go on to steal the series three games to two. All that's sad about the Oilers' collapse is that it tarnished Wayne Gretzky's stunning season (92 goals, 120 assists, 212 points—all records), the likes of which may never be seen again. But Gretzky was no one-man gang. Glenn Anderson had 105 points, Mark Messier scored 50 goals and the Oilers' 417 goals set an NHL record. "Maybe we concentrated too much on the records," says Coach and GM Glen Sather. "I don't think you'll see Gretzky getting quite the ice time this year that he did last." We shall see. Other priorities include getting Defenseman Paul Coffey (29 goals) to perform as superbly as he did in the first half of 1981-82 and Goalie Grant Fuhr, who had a shoulder operation this summer, back into shape. Ken Linseman was acquired in August to add playoff spark, but he might end up just adding penalty minutes. Already he has been suspended for the first four games for eye-gouging in an exhibition game. The key is still Gretzky. In games in which he scored a goal last season, the Oilers were 40-6-9. When he was shut out, Edmonton was 8-11-6.
The new coach of the CALGARY FLAMES is Badger Bob Johnson, who guided Wisconsin to three NCAA titles. Johnson has one of the finest hockey minds in the world. He also has lots of good forwards, including Lanny McDonald (40 goals), Mel Bridgman (33), Kevin LaVallee (32), Jim Peplinski (30) and Kent Nilsson (26 in 41 games). The goaltending will be improved, thanks to the arrival of Don Edwards. The weakness will be defense, which has little depth behind Phil Russell, Richie Dunn and Paul Reinhart. Convincing the Flames that anybody can play defense if he works his tail off will be Johnson's greatest challenge.
The challenge facing VANCOUVER CANUCKS Coach Roger Neilson? How to keep Vancouverites from falling asleep while watching his team. Neilson's clutch-and-grab tactics work wonders in the playoffs, but over 80 games they wear thin. Still, Vancouver, which hasn't played .500-or-better hockey since 1975-76, may do so this year. Thomas Gradin (37 goals) should get offensive help from rookies Patrik Sundstrom and Moe Lemay, and he'll need it; Vancouver was 18th in goals scored last season. On defense, Tiger Williams and Harold Snepsts will bang heads, but if Canuck fans think Goalie Richard Brodeur can carry this group of over-achievers to the Stanley Cup finals for the second straight year, they'll wind up crying into their towels.
Last season the WINNIPEG JETS were the most improved team in league history, leaping from nine wins in 1980-81 to 33. The going will be tougher this time around, primarily because the Jets are now in the Smythe Division, and thus will have eight fewer games against feckless Toronto and Detroit. Winnipeg is still on the rise, however. Last season's Rookie of the Year, Dale Hawerchuk, 19, has put on 15 pounds of muscle and weighs 190, and Morris Lukowich (43 goals, 49 assists) keeps improving. On defense, Serge Savard will hobble out for one more season, but the pivotal player is Dave Babych, once dubbed The Franchise, a title he cheerfully bequeathed to Hawerchuk. If the Jets repeat last year's .500 effort, the season will be considered a success.
Which could well leave the LOS ANGELES KINGS out in the cold. One of the team's difficulties is that it's hard to concentrate on hockey in Southern California, where nobody really gives a damn about the sport. Another difficulty is that L.A. plays every game on the road as if it had jet lag. Coach Don Perry, who'll be starting his first full season in L.A., is a no-nonsense type who might change some of this, but, Lord, what a row to hoe! The Kings were 20th in the NHL last year in goals against. The offense again will rely on Marcel Dionne, who had his fourth consecutive 50-goal season in 1981-82, and Dave Taylor, who had better than 100 points for the second year in a row. Charlie Simmer is trying to regain the form he displayed in 1980-81, when he had his second straight 56-goal year but broke his right leg near the end of the season. He scored just 15 goals in 50 games last year. Until the Kings figure out how to reduce the number of rebounds caroming off Goalie Mario Lessard—and going in—they'll just lose a lot of games 6-4.
The MINNESOTA NORTH STARS, after making the Stanley Cup finals in 1981, came up with the slogan: so CLOSE WE CAN TASTE IT. A bit premature. All the North Stars tasted in last season's playoffs were lumber and elbow pads, courtesy of Chicago, which beat Minnesota in the first round. To add beef and gristle to his stylish team, G.M. Lou Nanne dealt Steve Christoff to Calgary for 6'3", 205-pound Willi Plett, who has averaged 25 goals and 211 penalty minutes the last six seasons. But the biggest news is highly touted Forward Brian Bellows, the second choice overall in the draft. He should help keep the North Stars near the top for years. Goalie Don Beaupre had a sophomore slump last season, and Minnesota needs him to return to form to take some of the burden off 11-year veteran Gilles Meloche. On defense, Craig Hartsburg and Curt Giles are bona fide performers, but the North Stars must have oft-injured Gary Sargent at full strength to make a run at the Cup.
The gutsiest gamble of the summer was made by Emile Francis, president and coach of the ST. LOUIS BLUES. He traded two first-round draft choices to New Jersey for Defenseman Rob Ramage, a four-year pro who's only 23. Ramage was a bust with the Rockies because he tried to do too much. That won't be a problem with the Blues. Near the end of the season Francis acquired Guy Lapointe from Montreal, and he helped shore up the defense. Bernie Federko sparks the offense, which suffered in 1981-82, when Wayne Babych slipped from 54 goals to 19. Taking up the slack was Joe Mullen (25 goals in 45 games). Brian Sutter gives the Blues toughness and heart, but what they need most is Goalie Mike Liut to regain his All-Star stature of 1980-81. If he does, St. Louis could surprise Minnesota in the playoffs.
Which is about the only thing the BLACK HAWKS did right last year. Despite having Norris Trophy (best defenseman) winner Doug Wilson, who had 39 goals and 46 assists, the Hawks allowed 363 goals. Only two teams yielded more. Where do you point the finger? Start with the coach and the goaltenders. The Hawks have done something about the former, replacing Keith Magnuson with Orval Tessier, who last season guided Chicago's minor league team in New Brunswick to the AHL's best defensive record. He'll help. But Goalie Tony Esposito no longer can do it all by himself, and Murray Bannerman isn't a front-line netminder. The Hawks will do plenty of scoring, though. Denis Savard is the NHL's most exciting one-on-one player, and Ken Yaremchuk, the team's top draft pick, is said to be even speedier. Still, Chicago is a long way from any sort of championship.
The best news of the summer? Bruce Norris sold the DETROIT RED WINGS, who had missed the playoffs 10 of the last 11 years under his erratic hand. The new owner is Mike Hitch, founder of the Little Caesars pizza chain. One of the first moves by Hitch, who paid a reported $10 million for the Wings, was to hire G.M. Jimmy Devellano and Coach Nick Polano. Devellano, the Islanders' assistant GM last year, says he'll build the way his boss. Bill Torrey, did—through the draft. That will require patience. At the moment Detroit is strongest in defense, which features Jim Schoenfield, Reed Larson and Willie Huber. To bolster an offense lacking a 30-goal scorer last season, Detroit acquired 12-year veteran Reggie Leach (366 goals). The Wings' new direction, coupled with the fact that Winnipeg has moved into the Smythe Division, may be enough to bag them one of the NHL's 16,000 playoff berths.
The only team Detroit has to finish ahead of is the TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS. Except for 54-goal-scorer Rick Vaive and 18-year-old Defenseman Gary Nylund, the third player selected in this year's draft, Toronto is bereft of quality. Defenseman Borje Salming, who began the influx of Swedish players into the NHL in 1973, is just going through the motions these days. Unless Mike Nykoluk can get him to start playing with intensity again, Nykoluk may be the first coach fired this season.
Islanders over Edmonton