Smythe Division after talking about retirement over the summer, Wayne Gretzky signed on for five more years with EDMONTON, which gives the Oilers the edge to win their fourth Stanley Cup championship in five years. Along with Oiler forwards Mark Messier and Glen Anderson and goalie Grant Fuhr, Gretzky was vital to Team Canada's exciting victory over the Soviets in the Canada Cup. Asked how he would maintain intensity after the emotional Cup series, coach Glen Sather said, "Right now, I'm just worried about getting the team back together." Sather lost defensemen Randy Gregg and Reijo Ruotsalainen, both of whom quit to play for Olympic teams, and a third, Paul Coffey, was one of three Oiler holdouts.
In the final period of Game 7 last May, with the Stanley Cup on the line, the Oilers held Philadelphia to two shots on goal. Such smothering defense is a new concept in Edmonton, but Sather would like to see more of it. He could live without Coffey, whose aching back kept him out of 25 games last season and reduced his effectiveness in all the others. Without Messier, however, the Oilers would have trouble with the league's more physical teams.
One of those is CALGARY, which beat Edmonton six times in eight games last season. "I hope Badger left a few of his notebooks behind," says new Calgary coach Terry Crisp, who will have a tough time matching the 95-point season the Flames had last year under coach Badger Bob Johnson. Doug Risebrough retired, but John Tonelli, 30, and Lanny McDonald, 34, who perhaps should have, didn't. Defenseman Jamie Macoun will miss most of the season with nerve damage in his left arm. Calgary replaced him with Brad McCrimmon from Philadelphia. Newcomers Joe Nieuwendyk, a Cornell grad, and Brett Hull, son of Bobby, could provide the high-scoring lift that rookies Luc Robitaille and Jimmy Carson gave the L.A. Kings last season.
The Flames are 11-4-2 against Edmonton in their last 17 games. That didn't help them in the playoffs, in which they lost to WINNIPEG in six. Instead of trying to overwhelm the Jets with offense—Calgary's 318 goals gave it a tie with the Los Angeles Kings for second-best in the NHL last season—Johnson tried to win games 2-1, which was a mistake. Under new coach Dan Maloney, the Jets were one of the league's top five defensive teams. But fabulous penalty killing was offset by a low-voltage power play.
Just as the LOS ANGELES Kings can score with rapidity, unfortunately they let in goals just as fast. New coach Mike Murphy will focus on defense, hoping 18-year-old Wayne McBean, the fourth pick overall in the amateur draft, will take some of the load off Steve Duchesne, who was, along with Robitaille and Carson, an all-rookie selection last season. It would help if Bobby Carpenter, traded twice last season, could regain his enthusiasm for playing and remember what it was like to score 53 goals in '84-85.
Vancouver has done less to help its hapless defense. Doomed though the Canucks may be to the Smythe cellar, they are not without a plan. New G.M. Pat Quinn and coach Bob McCammon all have strong Flyers backgrounds. In the first two exhibition games against the Kings, Vancouver accumulated 157 penalty minutes. It is already being suggested that Vancouver's Renfrew Street be renamed Broad Street.
Patrick Division the Flyers will be in the Wales Conference finals for the third time in four years because they will outwork everybody. PHILADELPHIA'S roster includes two of the league's silkiest scorers in Pelle Eklund and Ilkka Sinisalo, and MVP goalie Ron Hextall. Tim Kerr, the power in the Flyers' power play, will return. Kerr had had three operations in the off-season to fix the chronic shoulder problem that kept him out of most of the playoffs.
Center Dale Hunter is the leader WASHINGTON has been waiting for, and his arrival from Quebec should help the Caps improve their sorry record against Philly—18-44-9 since 1974-75. The Caps will get a boost from the return of prodigal gun Bengt Gustafsson, who led the team in assists two years ago, before he took off to play a year in Sweden. Goalie Clint Malarchuk came in the Hunter deal, and with Scott Stevens, Rod Langway, Kevin Hatcher and Larry Murphy, the defense is ironclad.
"Now if we could get the guys up front to put some pucks in the net," grumbles coach Bryan Murray, who needs to advance well into the playoffs this year to keep his job.
Color the New York ISLANDERS green and gray. Team Generation Gap has 18 players 24 or younger but also has half a dozen holdovers from the early-'80s dynasty days. The mix can work, as the Isles proved by winning—in quadruple overtime—Game 7 of the divisional semifinal against Washington last April.
Perennial 50-goal scorer Mike Bossy, plagued with the same back ailment that hampered him last season, will be out for all of this season. The time is now for Great Yankee Hope Pat LaFontaine. "Our defense is fine," says G.M. Bill Torrey. "What we need is for La-Fontaine to jump into the top echelon. If he doesn't, I'll be really surprised." And goal-poor.
The starkest possible contrast to the Islanders' painstaking cultivation of young talent can be found at nearby Madison Square Garden, where Trader Phil—New York RANGERS G.M. Phil Esposito—is still at it. The biggest deal he made was for Michel Bergeron, the Nordiques' coach of seven years, who came to the Rangers for $100,000 and a first-round pick. In addition the Rangers acquired talented left wing John Ogrodnick, along with defenseman David Shaw, from Quebec.
Bergeron inherits a corps of serviceable defensemen. Goal-scorers Marcel Dionne, Walt Poddubny and Tomas Sandstrom all disappeared in last year's playoffs. Watch Espo and Bergeron attempt to bridge the talent gap between the Rangers and the league's better teams by screaming a lot. But raised voices will not raise the Rangers past a fourth-place finish.
It is a long way from Gretzky to Wilf Paiement. Accordingly, those hoping that PITTSBURGH center Mario Lemieux's phenomenal Canada Cup play will carry over to the NHL may be disappointed. The Penguins' annual futility—they have not made the playoffs in five years—could continue, as Lemieux may join a line with the merely mortal Paiement.
New coach Pierre Creamer inherits a pair of talented defensemen, enviable depth at center and a frightening goal-scoring vacuum everywhere else. He's looking ahead to February, when Zarley Zalapski, the top defenseman for Canada's Olympic team, returns to the Penguins. Pittsburgh's highest-scoring right wing last season had 14 goals. The Penguin management is offering a rebate to season-ticket holders if the team doesn't gain the playoffs this year. Who will sign all those checks?
New Jersey's new president, Lou Lamoriello, fresh from the campus of Providence College, must figure if you can't beat 'em, try to outfight 'em. Patrik Sundstrom arrives from Vancouver to help Aaron Broten, John MacLean, Pat Verbeek and captain Kirk Muller fill the nets with pucks. To aid that scoring nucleus, Lamoriello drafted rugged right wing Brendan Shanahan, who can score and fight. This year, like the rest of the Devils, he'll do more of the latter.
Adams Division last season the Hartford Whalers were done in by their own short fuses. The young and restless Whalers led Quebec two games to none in their first-round playoff when, as Whalers G.M. Emile (the Cat) Francis says, "We took the bait." The Whalers were goaded into penalty upon retaliatory penalty. The Nordiques scored goal upon power-play goal and won four straight games.
Despite the unpardonably early exit, the Cat stood pat during the summer. The promising Whalers went 43-30-7 last season, the fourth-best record in the NHL. Francis has cultivated a copse of redwoods on defense. His forwards—Ron Francis, Kevin Dineen, Paul Lawless, John Anderson, Sylvain Turgeon—are the quickest in the conference.
But other than Dineen, who is Pete Rose on skates, and a couple others, Whaler forwards are either small or distinctly unphysical or both. The Whale needs a cop and has one, if Torrie Robertson can recover from the compound leg fracture he suffered when Montreal's Shayne Corson fell on him during a fight last November. If goalie Mike Liut, ever reliable from October through March, can shake his rep as a postseason gagmeister—a lighter work load during the regular season might help—the Insurance City will win the Adams again and get further in the playoffs.
Montreal had the third-poorest goal production in the league last year. Opponents roughed up teensy (5'7") Mats Naslund, holding him to 25 goals, well under his career average. Defense-man Larry Robinson won the award for the most creative off-season injury. Much to coach Jean Perron's dismay, Robinson broke his leg in August playing polo. Yeah, horse polo. The Big Bird, 36, will miss only a couple of months, and this season is thought to be his swan song, anyway. Even without Robinson, the Habs defense is big, deep and talented; it yielded the fewest goals in the league last season. Perron remains undecided as to who will be the regular goalie—Patrick Roy, the wunderkind of 1985-86 who self-destructed in last season's playoffs, or Brian Hayward, who filled in so ably.
Nobody in Montreal could get too excited about sweeping BOSTON in last spring's playoffs. Montreal has beaten Boston in their last 18 postseason matchups. Bruins G.M. Harry Sinden is fed up, and he's not going to take it anymore. Sinden has said that this year he will favor youth—and he's got it in centers Tommy Lehmann and Bob Sweeney, and defenseman Glen Wesley—and take his lumps during the regular season, hoping it pays off in April.
Go on, laugh. BUFFALO's 28 wins last season was a league low. When coach Ted Sator arrived in December, replacing Scotty Bowman, the Sabres were 17 points behind fourth-place Quebec. By the first week of March, the teams were even. Sator can coach, and in Pierre Turgeon, the No. 1 pick in the draft, he has a player to build a dream on. Turgeon, a 6'1", 209-pound center, scored on the first shot of his first shift in his first NHL exhibition game.
Even pre-Turgeon, the Sabres were strong up the middle and now they could be strong in the net if erratic goalie Tom Barrasso returns to his rookie-year form. The Sabres need only pick up where they left off to exclude the Nordiques from the playoffs.
Last season. QUEBEC'S worst in seven, convinced the Nordique brass that a purge was in order. Ogrodnick was traded to the Rangers, and Hunter and Malarchuk went to Washington in return for good-but-not-great forwards Gaetan Duchesne and Alan Haworth.
Surprisingly, the Nordiques struggled to score last season. Pure scorer Michel Goulet was kept under 50 goals for the first time in five years. Hunter's exit, plus that of pugilist Basil McRae, will mean opposing thugs can pick on Nordique snipers with impunity.
Norris Division with defensemen like Whack and Hack (Lee Norwood and Gilbert Delorme)—just two in a pack of clutchers and grabbers—coach Jacques Demers's pesky DETROIT club reached the Campbell Conference finals last spring. "They play Australian-rules football," complains Toronto coach John Brophy. Now the entire division, Brophy included, seems intent on out-Demersing Demers.
The Red Wings will maintain their edge with classy centerman Steve Yzerman and the coming of age—Demers hopes—of young forwards Joe Murphy and Adam Graves. Talented tough guy Joey Kocur was suspended in the preseason for cussing out an assistant coach during a photo session, but he'll be dressed for the team's opener. More than anything, it is Demers's uncanny ability to wring wins from mediocrity that gets Detroit over the top. Besides, someone from this ugly division has to make it to the Stanley Cup semis. Little separates the other teams.
If they had done any better at all than 0-7-1 against the Red Wings last season, the MINNESOTA North Stars would not have been edged out of the playoffs by Toronto. And then G.M. Lou Nanne would not have felt pressured to hire hometown hero Herb Brooks as the team's sixth coach in 8½ years. Brooks's biggest job will be to unite a team badly divided over Nanne's treatment of coach Lorne Henning, who was fired with two games left in the season.
Under sharp young coach Jacques Martin, ST. LOUIS stole first place from Detroit on the last day of the regular season. But the Blues, who lost 361 man-games to injuries, were physically dominated by Toronto in the first round of the playoffs. So what did Martin and G.M. Ron Caron do in the off-season? If you said, "Beefed up," you win an evening with Doug Evans, the Blues wing who earned notoriety last season when he picked a fight with Gretzky.
Caron dealt for scoring threat Tony McKegny, the former Ranger, and signed last season's best collegiate player, Tony Hrkac (rhymes with circus), who had 116 points in 48 games for North Dakota last year.
One of these teams—CHICAGO or TORONTO—will not make the playoffs. That's akin to living in the waiting room at the Greyhound terminal yet missing your bus. The division just isn't that good. Toronto coach Brophy, the ex-Long Island Duck and alltime EHL penalty-minutes record holder, seeks skaters in his image. In the summer's blockbuster trade, Toronto sent Rick Vaive and Steve Thomas to Chicago for Al Secord and Ed Olczyk. Secord is mean and good—he has had three 50-goal seasons. Olczyk, a Chicago native who always felt pressure to impress the home folks, is 21, 6'1" and 195 pounds of unrealized potential.
Chicago got a 50-goal scorer in Vaive and the prolific Thomas (35 goals and 62 points last year), and also acquired goalie Bob Mason from the Caps. Take the Black Hawks ahead of the Leafs because they traded grind for goals.