On Sept. 10, two days before the NHL training camps opened, All-Star Defenseman Brian Engblom got word that the Montreal Canadiens had traded him to the Washington Gaping-holes (a.k.a. the Capitals), a financially troubled team that in its eight-year history had never made the playoffs, a feat as mathematically improbable as Halley's Comet landing in league President John Ziegler's bathtub. "I was shocked," says Engblom, 27, who was coming off his best season, during which he had led NHL defensemen in plus-minus ratings (+78). "I wasn't even one of those complaining to get out of Montreal."
Included in the deal were Engblom's defense partner, Rod Langway, 25, who had said he wouldn't play another season in Montreal because the Canadian and Quebec tax laws and the country's depressed dollar were making mincemeat of his take-home pay; Doug Jarvis, a peerless defensive center; and Wing Craig Laughlin. Langway was second to Engblom in the plus-minus statistics for defensemen (+66) in 1981-82, and the two of them were acclaimed as the best defensive pair in the NHL. Washington had acquired Instant D.
In return, the Canadiens got Ryan Walter, 24, a hard-nosed left wing who was the Caps' second-leading scorer (38 goals, 49 assists) last year and the Washington fans' most popular player to boot. Montreal hoped that Walter would rejuvenate a fading Guy Lafleur. The Canadiens also received 6'3", 207-pound Defenseman Rick Green, the first pick in the 1976 draft, who had labored in anonymity in Washington. Still, the feeling around the league was that Montreal's managing director, Irving Grundman, had had his pocket picked.
"Langway wanted out and the Canadiens were deep at center, so I sensed that my time was running out," says Jarvis, who had played 560 consecutive games for the Canadiens and had been on four Stanley Cup-winning Montreal clubs. "But I couldn't believe Brian was included in the deal. He'd been the team's steadiest defenseman the past couple of years."
The outcry from certain members of the Montreal press corps over Engblom's departure was so strong that Engblom recently said, "They're talking more about me now than when I played there. It's like when a great painter dies—suddenly his works are worth a whole lot more."
Thus there was more than the usual amount of interest last week when the Canadiens and the Capitals—no longer the Gapingholes—played to a 3-3 tie in their opening meeting of the season, at the Capital Centre. It wasn't exactly the seventh game of the World Series, but the game did have its moments, especially for those players performing against their former teammates. Walter scored for the Canadiens, to the delight of his still-loyal fans, while Langway and Laughlin each had a goal for the Capitals. Green, who holds the record for most games played in a Capitals' uniform (377), stepped into the wrong penalty box when he was called for interference in the second period. As for Engblom, he seemed relieved to have survived the game without handing the puck to one of the Canadiens. "I had a sick feeling in my stomach all day that I'd pass to a familiar face out there," he said.
There wasn't much chance Walter or Green would make that mistake because the Capitals have mostly new faces. Of the players who began last season with Washington, only forwards Dennis Maruk, Bobby Carpenter, Mike Gartner and Bengt Gustafsson remain. Among the newcomers is Milan Novy, 31, one of the most renowned names in Czechoslovakian hockey. It will be some time before Novy, a center, is comfortable with the North American game and life-style—he speaks virtually no English—though he has already shown flashes of brilliance both on the ice and off. Asked by a TV newsman for an interview, Novy replied, "No speakay Washington."
"All I'm trying to do now is buy time," says Caps General Manager David Poile, a new face himself and the man who put together the trade with Montreal. At 33, Poile is the youngest G.M. in NHL history. "But we've got so many new people, we're not playing as a team."
To give Washington improved defense on two of its three shifts, Poile and Coach Bryan Murray have split up Lang-way and Engblom, a move that—temporarily anyway—seems to have reduced the effectiveness of each. "It takes half a second longer to adjust to a new partner," says Langway, who has played much of the season with 22-year-old Darren Veitch. "Sometimes you make a play that, if Brian were there, would be the right one, but instead you look bad. They want us to help out with the younger players."
Engblom usually has been paired with Scott Stevens, 18, the youngest player in the league. But the biggest change for the new arrivals from the Canadiens may be adjusting to a city in which hockey ranks somewhere between marbles and the milk lobby in local interest. Says Jarvis, "In Montreal all you heard about was hockey. Whether I was burned by the money issue or not, I always figured it was a privilege to play there. In Washington, where hockey's not Number One, motivation can be a problem."
Green and Walter are finding out what a privilege it can be to play on a Canadien team that's going well. Through Sunday Montreal had a 7-1-1 record. "It's just starting to sink in," says Green. "Being in that dressing room, playing in the Forum, being among a bunch of winners—it makes everybody's job easier. I look at this as a promotion."
Says Walter, who after nine games had four goals and four assists, "The aim in Washington was to make the playoffs, but here it's to win the Stanley Cup. [Veteran Defenseman] Larry Robinson told me after I got here that the last two years they've scored more than 100 points in the regular season, but the only thing anyone remembers is how they did in the playoffs."
In case anyone needs a reminder, the Canadiens lost in the first round of postseason play each of the last two years—to upstart Edmonton in three straight games in '81 and then to upstart Quebec in five last spring. Why? How? The big man had been shut down. Lafleur had only two goals and two assists in those eight games. This from a man who has averaged better than 1.2 points a game in the playoffs over his 11-year career. Management thought Lafleur—and the Canadiens—needed a left wing not only tough enough to dig the puck out of the corners and to park in front of the net on the power play but also skillful and fast enough to complement Lafleur's talents at right wing. No one in the vaunted Montreal farm system fitted that description. Walter did. The price, however, was dear. "If the Canadien organization was all it was cracked up to be," says Glen Cole, a Canadien radio announcer, "it never would have put itself in the position of having to trade for a left wing. I think the Canadiens panicked."
Walter has been everything Montreal expected, but the player most responsible for the rejuvenation of Lafleur (five goals, eight assists) has been Lafleur's and Walter's center, Doug Wickenheiser, the first choice in the 1980 draft. After two seasons of bench detail Wickenheiser has blossomed into one of the NHL's scoring leaders with eight goals and seven assists. Further, he has developed into the face-off expert that Montreal lost with the departure of Jarvis.
Besides Wickenheiser, Montreal's biggest surprise has been its defense, which, excluding an 8-7 loss to Chicago, has barely missed Engblom and Langway. Green, after reporting for duty weighing a beefy 225, missed the first three games of the season with a back injury, a malady some insiders believe Montreal management concocted to give Green time to get himself into shape. Be that as it may, he's playing now and playing well.
Green's partner is Craig Ludwig, who last season played for North Dakota's NCAA championship team. A native of Rhinelander, Wis., Ludwig is big (6'3", 212 pounds), steady and poised—like Bill Nyrop, the U.S.-bred defenseman who was a member of three Stanley Cup champion teams in Montreal in the late '70s. "Anyone who says Ludwig hasn't been a surprise just isn't telling the truth," says Montreal Coach Bob Berry. "He's come here out of college and has been one of our steadiest defensemen."
Robinson is determined to return to his All-Star form following an off-season in 1981-82, but after him the Montreal defense seems thin. Gilbert Delorme, 19, has a bright future, but he can be knocked off the puck right now, and 20-year-old Ric Nattress can become rattled. Robert Picard, 25, and Gaston Gingras, 23, can shoot and skate like All-Stars, but they make so many mental blunders that they are becoming known as Alphonse and Gaston. Gingras' nickname, in fact, is Gaston La Gaffe.
Still, Montreal has allowed an average of only three goals a game, second fewest in the NHL. Defense is a team responsibility, and Berry has the Canadiens playing a disciplined man-on-man system in their own zone. Says Washington's Murray, "When forwards are coming back to help, it's difficult for a young defenseman to get into too much trouble unless he makes just a brutal play."
So who got the better end of the deal? Don't be deceived by Montreal's fast start. Last season the Canadiens played their first 10 games without a loss. They have unquestionably helped themselves offensively, but Montreal is still a one-line team, and one-line clubs don't win Stanley Cups unless the defense and goaltending are magnificent. One has to wonder if the Canadiens' defense wouldn't have been exactly that had they stood pat with Langway, Engblom, Robinson and the emergent Ludwig.
As for the Capitals, they only have to make the playoffs for the trade to be regarded a success—a goal that's far from secure, considering their 2-5-1 record at week's end. Says Engblom, "Right now the trade's being analyzed on a day-to-day basis, but you have to wait several months to really judge it. They're never going to stop analyzing it."