Consider this: The last member of the Norris Division to win the Stanley Cup was Toronto. In 1966-67. That was the season before expansion, seven years before the league went to a four-division makeup. Need we say more? Don't expect another Cup winner from these bleak environs for a few more seasons.
The Minnesota North Stars should reestablish themselves as the class of the division. Should. One can never be sure with this schizophrenic bunch. Two years ago they went from Cup contender to a snappish, dispirited team that earned only 62 points. Last season they were up to a respectable 85 points, good enough to tie the Penguins for most-improved team in the NHL. In fact, the North Stars went an impressive 29-17-2 after Dec. 21. Line the parade route, the Stars are back, right? Not necessarily. The St. Louis Blues bounced them in the first round of the playoffs.
But certainly the talent is there, and coach Lorne Henning has forced at least a semblance of unity on a team of lone riders. Right wing Brian Bellows (31-48) has been acting more like a grown-up, Dino Ciccarelli is coming off a 44-goal year, Don Beaupre is set in goal and the North Stars are deep in quick little centers who can score (Neal Broten, Keith Acton, Dennis Maruk). If nothing else, the Shooting Stars will be among the league's most interesting teams to chart.
There's no mystery about Chicago: no defense. The Blackhawks—yes, they now style it that way, one word, the way it was back when the Hawks were formed in '26—gave up 349 goals, fifth-worst in the NHL, and shaky goaltending and sloppy defensive work cost them dearly in their embarrassing three-game playoff ouster by the Maple Leafs. That weakness was not lost on Gary Nylund, the free-agent defense-man the Hawks signed away from the Leafs this summer. "It was pretty obvious they needed something back there," Nylund says. Whether Nylund (-69 over the past two years) is the answer is debatable. Strangely, Chicago seems content to stick with its goalie tandem of Murray Bannerman (4.48 GAA) and Bob Sauve (3.94). So once again it appears that the Hawks—led by Denis Savard (47 goals, 69 assists)—can do little but try to outgun the opposition.
No team in hockey was more defined by the personality of its coach last season than St. Louis. Jacques Demers had his marginally talented team playing intelligent, controlled hockey, but now he's gone. After Demers could not get the Blues to give him a written contract, he negotiated a five-year, $1.1 million deal with Detroit this summer. The unenviable task of replacing Demers goes to Jacques Martin, a fine coach in the juniors. But don't go singing the blues quite yet. The St. Louis roster is filled with players of character—among them, forwards Brian Sutter and Bernie Federko, and defenseman Rob Ramage—who will not let this team flounder.
If anyone needs convincing about Demers's motivational abilities, look at this: The Detroit Red Wings, the most laughable team in all of hockey last season, will make the playoffs. No, we haven't been drinking motor oil. The outfit that set club records for most losses (57), fewest points (40), most goals-against (415)—and used up two coaches (Harry Neale and Brad Park) in the process—will steal the fourth spot. Center Steve Yzerman is better than '85-86 indicated (he was down from 89 points two seasons ago to 42), as is left wing John Ogrodnick (down from 55 goals to 38), and Czech defector Petr Klima showed his potential by scoring 32 goals while adjusting to a new culture. Greg Stefan has been in the nets for 31 of the Wings' last 44 victories and figures to shoulder the load as long as he can avoid suspension for stick swinging. The area in which Demers must produce miracles is defense. He knows how to do it: His Blues gave up 291 goals last season, fewest in the Campbell Conference. And to help him, Demers has brought steady defender Lee Norwood with him from St. Louis. Of all the megabucks the Red Wings have thrown at free agents, Demers is the best investment.
Speaking of coaches, when we last checked in on the Maple Leafs, good things were happening. They played .500 hockey from mid-January to mid-March, then swept the Hawks in the playoffs and extended the Blues to seven. Exciting young players abounded—forward Wendel Clark, center Russ Courtnall and goalie Ken Wregget. So why did coach Dan Maloney reach for the Maple Leaf Gardens pay phone during the playoffs and dial up his buddy John Ferguson in Winnipeg? It seems that Harold Ballard, the crusty Maple Leaf owner, offered Maloney only a one-year contract extension with a minor salary increase, then went about criticizing his coach for losing to the Blues. Duly insulted, Maloney said "later" and went west; he was succeeded by John Brophy. Now watch the Leafs go south.