What NHL president John Ziegler ought to do this very moment is give the Edmonton Oilers a bye right into the Stanley Cup finals. Let Wayne Gretzky, a man who hates airplanes—especially when they're going to some place like, oh, Hartford—take a bus to Palm Springs and play golf until next May. Tell Jari Kurri he can caddie for Gretzky or spend the winter at home in Finland with his infant twin sons. Tell Glen Sather to take a sabbatical from hockey and get his hamburger franchise in Banff off the ground. Yes, John, send all those Oilers away—please!—until the real season begins next spring.
Team Gretzky should clinch the SMYTHE championship sometime before the final out of the World Series. The Great One himself puts EDMONTON'S take-no-prisoners approach to the regular season in perfect perspective when he says, "I'd like to score 100 goals this year." At least he doesn't say "this week."
Although Gretzky registered 208 points last season while winning the MVP award for the sixth time in his six NHL seasons, he actually experienced a goal-scoring slump, dropping from 87 goals to 73. Of course, those 73 still were tops in the league, two more than Kurri, who, not coincidentally, plays right wing on Gretzky's line, scored. Every Mike, Craig, Dave and Eska in Edmonton gets an opportunity to play left wing on the Gretzky-Kurri line because Sather, the wily coach and general manager, uses that position as a company benefit to help those in need of a few quick points to make their bonus clauses. As for defense, Paul Coffey is the first Orr clone to really play like Orr (page 54), and Grant Fuhr is the NHL's best goaltender.
But let's forget Edmonton, which is something that WINNIPEG would like to do. Talk about identity crises. The Jets have the league's second-best player, center Dale Hawerchuk, and last season 1) finished with the fourth-best record overall; 2) tied an NHL record when six of their players scored more than 30 goals; 3) had the second-best record on the road—22-14-4; and 4) had the second-best defenseman in the league, Randy Carlyle. But all anybody knows about Winnipeg is that you can't get there from anywhere.
Hawerchuk had 53 goals and 77 assists last season and, says one opponent, "was more valuable to his team than Gretzky was to his. Edmonton probably would have won it all even without Gretzky; Winnipeg would have waved the white flag in January without Hawerchuk."
Winnipeg was hockey's healthiest team in 1984-85, with 12 regulars playing at least 75 of the 80 regular-season games. Continued good health, Hawerchuk, dependable goaltending by Brian Hayward—and, well, you get to Winnipeg by changing planes in....
In CALGARY, the new math is called addition by subtraction. Last season the Flames, who finished third in the Smythe and tied for fifth overall, scored more goals (363) than any other team except Edmonton (401) but had only one player, forward Kent Nilsson (37 goals, 99 points), among the NHL's top 45 scorers. So they traded Nilsson, who had led them in scoring five of the last six seasons, to Minnesota for two draft picks. The reason: Nilsson refused even to think about the checking and was the only Calgary regular on the ice for more even-strength goals scored by the opposition than by the Flames. He won't be missed. Now if only Lanny McDonald, a 66-goal scorer in 1982-83, can recover from the knee and stomach injuries that limited him to 19 goals last season.
Los Angeles won more games (34) than it lost (32) last season, a tribute to new coach Pat Quinn's patience with youth—particularly rookie defensemen Craig Redmond and Garry Galley and rookie goaltender Bob Janecyk—and his steely-eyed insistence that everyone follow his disciplined system. Yes, even you, Marcel. Dionne responded with 46 goals while visiting areas of the ice that he had previously thought to be off limits to goal scorers.
How bad was VANCOUVER last year? So bad (25 wins in 80 games) that fans wisely took to wearing paper bags over their heads during games. About the only Canuck worth watching was right wing Tony Tanti, who had 39 goals. New coach Tom Watt surveyed the wreckage, pondered the prospects for this season and said: "I can't walk on water." Watt does run 50 miles a week, one for each year of his life, as he likes to say. By the end of the season he'll feel like he ought to run 90 miles a week.
Like the Smythe Division, the NORRIS has one team that's a cut well above the rest—CHICAGO. Trouble is, the Black Hawks are several cuts below the Oilers, yet they've really done nothing to upgrade their personnel. Denis Savard (105 points) is a marvelous playmaker, Doug Wilson (22 goals) has a cannon from the point and center Troy Murray is a peerless checker. But the Hawks need scoring punch on the wings, better goaltending and a healthy Al Secord and his 40 to 50 goals. Then again, even if the Hawks get all three, they'll still lose to Edmonton in the playoffs.
No team is better coached than ST. LOUIS, where Jacques Demers always does wonders with little talent and a minuscule budget. Bernie Federko, the Blues' leading scorer for seven straight years, Brian Sutter and sharpshooter Joe Mullen supply the offense, and Demers uses all his other players in clearly defined defensive roles.
That new fellow behind the MINNESOTA bench is not Herb Brooks, who was fired by the Rangers last January and subsequently was thought to be a lock for his hometown coaching job, then held on an interim basis by Glen Sonmor. But Herbie wanted too much money and too much of the authority held by general manager Lou Nanne, so now he's selling college and high school rings. The new coach is Lorne Henning, age 33, a former Islander center and assistant to Al Arbour. He inherits a team long on talent but short on direction; for years the Stars have gone their separate ways on the ice, with predictably negative results. Henning will force the Stars to play a sound and unified system in front of goaltenders Don Beaupre and Rollie Melanson.
Detroit won't buy the Stanley Cup, not this year, but the Red Wings should own fourth place—and a playoff berth—come April (page 40).
As for TORONTO, 19-year-old defenseman Al Iafrate showed up for training camp at 241 pounds, or 23 more than coach Dan Maloney had expected him to weigh, and could spend the season in the doghouse. The Leafs can forget the playoffs, as usual. And they should do defenseman Borje Salming a favor and trade him to a contender so he can conclude his distinguished career on a winning note.
While the Smythe and Norris divisions have clear class distinctions, the ADAMS offers parity. Don't laugh. Any of the five teams could finish first—yes, even longtime doormat Hartford.
Quebec won the division playoff last spring by beating hated Montreal on an overtime goal by Peter Stastny in the seventh game. The young and feisty Nordiques get their scoring punch from Michel Goulet (168 goals and 321 points in the last three seasons) and Stastny (an average of 118 points the last five years) and their leadership from gritty Dale Hunter.
In MONTREAL, the coach never sleeps, as Jacques Lemaire discovered last season. So, one day this summer Lemaire shocked the Canadiens by resigning as coach after only one full season. He said the job was too hazardous to his health. So was losing to Quebec in the playoffs. The new coach is Jean Perron, who is going to find the best Canadiens are a Swede (forward Mats Naslund, who had a team-high 42 goals last season) and an American (defenseman Chris Chelios of Chicago, a superior puck handler). But Montreal's hopes revolve around two Canadians: goaltender Steve Penney, who seemed to be more lucky than good in his first full season a year ago, and defenseman Larry Robinson, 34, who recovered from two bad seasons to be a dominant force again in '84-85.
Boston and Buffalo both made the same risky move, promoting one of last season's players to head coach, BOSTON'S Butch Goring will look like a genius if center Barry Pederson (tumor on his right arm) and defenseman Gord Kluzak (shattered knee) stay healthy, if wing Rick Middleton plays with the verve that was missing last season and if moody goaltender Pete Peeters recovers the form that made him the NHL's best just three years ago.
Buffalo's new coach, Jim Schoenfeld, inherits a team that could use a young Gilbert Perreault to pep up a plodding, unimaginative attack and a young Jim Schoenfeld to add some fire and experience to a slow, error-prone defense. The old Perreault (he's 34) scored 30 goals last season but didn't take too well to the Schoenfeld program during training camp. If Schoenfeld's smart, he'll play flashy Phil Housley strictly at right defense—Scotty Bowman used Housley everywhere—and let him run the offense, and he'll keep goalie Tom Barrasso happier than Bowman did.
Hartford could well be this year's Philadelphia story. The goaltending is solid with ex-Blue Mike Liut, and top draft choice Dana Murzyn, who goes 6'2" and 200 pounds, strengthens an already tough defense that keyed the Whalers' 9-3-2 finish in 1984-85. And up front the Whalers have plenty of goal scorers—Sylvain Turgeon had 31 goals last year; Ray Neufeld, 27; Kevin Dineen, 25; Jorgen Pettersson, 23 (with St. Louis); and Ron Francis, 24, along with 57 assists—and plenty of muscle. A trip to Hartford used to be an automatic two points. No more.
Which brings us to the mirage division, the not-so-mighty PATRICK. True, the Patrick has produced four Stanley Cup champions and eight Cup finalists in the last seven years, but it will offer terminal boredom in 1985-86. Philadelphia, tough and scrappy, is a clear pick over Washington, which may have peaked last January. The rebuilding Islanders are a lock for No. 3, but the fourth and final playoff position should be awarded to the fifth-place team in the Adams—not to the Rangers, the Devils or the Penguins, impostors all.
Last season PHILADELPHIA rookie general manager Bobby Clarke gave rookie coach Mike Keenan almost a whole team load of Bobby Clarke clones, and Iron Mike—you play the game his way, or you play golf, as hotshot rookie-scorer Todd Bergen learned the hard way—drove them to the Cup finals, where they lost to Edmonton in five games.
The Flyers were intimidating again in the Spectrum, losing only four of 40 home games, and Pelle Lindbergh gave them sensational goaltending, winning a league-high 40 games. The defensemen are masters of the art of the clutch-and-grab, particularly Brad Marsh and Brad McCrimmon. What the Flyers need, for sure, is a healthy Tim Kerr, who last year had 54 goals, including a league-high 21 on the power play. Kerr was hospitalized with aseptic meningitis during training camp, but the doctors expect no long-range complications.
As defenseman Rod Langway goes, so goes WASHINGTON. Langway spent two months during the summer of '84 playing for Team USA in the Canada Cup, and for the first four months of the NHL season he played his usual 40 minutes a game. But late in January, Langway understandably started to show fatigue, and suddenly the Capitals did a swan dive out of first place.
Langway's ice time will be reduced this season, some of it going to the indestructible Scott Stevens and some to rookie Kevin Hatcher. Bobby Carpenter (53 goals last season) and Mike Gartner (50) could use another scorer up front, and it would help if either Pat Riggin or Al Jensen took charge in goal.
Sentimentality has no place in pro sports. Just ask general manager Bill Torrey of the ISLANDERS. "We've won with a lot of these players for many years," says Torrey. "You hate to do it, but there will be some changes, five or six, possibly." The best of the Isles' newcomers is 20-year-old Finnish forward Mikko Makela, but none of them is a Bossy or a Trottier or a Potvin.
New coach Ted Sator will not confuse the RANGERS with the Flyers he helped coach last year. Scandinavia West, as the Rangers—a team overloaded with swift but timid Europeans—are known, lost 44 games last season while giving up 345 goals. The Rangers need muscle and aggressiveness, not to mention a dozen new players.
In PITTSBURGH the off-season talk was all about a franchise shift to Hamilton, Ontario, but the Penguins remain put, and as long as they are possessors of Gretzky East, Mario Lemieux, who scored 43 goals as a rookie last season, they will be prime entertainment. Coach Bob Berry is looking for a wing for Lemieux, who last year made a 40-goal scorer—and a Detroit millionaire—out of Warren Young.
Mickey Mouse has grown up—a little. The NEW JERSEY DEVILS improved themselves by acquiring Mark Johnson and Peter McNab, both of whom can score. But goaltender Chico Resch will remain the busiest man in America. The question here may be: Will the Devils beat the Penguins—to Hamilton, that is.