The 1988-89 NHL season has us quivering in anticipation as we have not quivered since, oh, Wayne Gretzky met actress Janet Jones. For one thing, with Gretzky now skating on the Left Coast, where he can be closer to his pregnant wife, we'll see a change in the balance of power in the Smythe Division.
We'll also see 14 games against two teams from the Soviet major league. And we'll see, we hope, more competent referees, thanks to new incentive clauses in the refs' contracts and more support from the league hierarchy. We'll not see so much gore on the ice, thanks to stricter rules against malevolent stickwork. And we'll see Guy Lafleur as a New York Ranger—four years after he retired as a Montreal Canadien, 3½ years after they hung his number 10 in the rafters at the Forum, and a month after he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
It's too bad that when the season is over and the Edmonton Oilers are trying to figure out what to do with their fifth Stanley Cup ring in six years, NHL games will have been witnessed by only those real diehards who happen to live within reach of Billy Smith's stick. That's because the NHL, showing its usual perspicacity, ditched ESPN in favor of regional cable TV outfits. The new three-year deal provides each NHL team with an additional $600,000 per year, but the total audience potential of the regional cables is some 80% less than that of ESPN. To see an NHL game, a hockey maven in, say, Albuquerque, will either have to invest in a satellite dish or buy a round-trip ticket to an NHL town. No problem, figures the NHL brain trust, to whom the popularity of the sport across the U.S. is obviously a low priority.
Lamentably the NHL still will let every Tom, Dick and Harry into the Stanley Cup playoffs. There is nothing more meaningless than an NHL season: 21 teams play a total of 840 games to determine which five teams won't make the playoffs. Last year, after charging down the homestretch with a 2-14 record, the Toronto Maple Leafs finished 21-49-10 to nip the Minnesota North Stars by a point for the final Norris Division berth. Toronto should have been dropped to the minor leagues for a season, not allowed into the playoffs.
It's easy to peer into the future and predict the 16 teams that will make the playoffs in April. So we'll take the road less traveled and nominate the true NHL elite, the five teams that won't make the playoffs: Vancouver, Toronto, Quebec, the New York Rangers and Washington. Here then are our predictions for the divisional breakdowns, with teams listed in ascending order of proficiency:
In the Smythe Division, it used to be a battle between Vancouver and the Los Angeles Kings to see who would begin their summer vacation first. But the Canucks have recently taken much of the suspense from that race, finishing out of the money in three of the past four seasons. Come April, it will be four of five. The Canucks did little to improve their on-ice personnel in the off-season. They did, however, fire their trainer, Ken Fleger, whom management had suspected of being a source of leaks to the press. The front office evidently figures that by plugging the supposed leak, the Canucks will be better on the ice.
The Winnipeg Jets have traditionally been conceded third place in the Smythe. No màs. The addition of Wayne Gretzky won't win the division for the Kings, but it should be worth third place in the standings. Ex-Oiler forwards Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley and ex-Flyer defenseman Doug Crossman (a very unhappy camper in Philadelphia) also will make life more enjoyable for Los Angeles sharpshooters Luc Robitaille, Dave Taylor and Bernie Nicholls.
There is a swell ceremony scheduled for Oct. 6 in Calgary to award the Flames a handsome trophy for piling up more points (105) last season than any other team. The Flames also will divvy up the $200,000 that comes with the trophy. Of course, they probably need the money because they had four extra weeks of summer vacation. That's four weeks more than the Oilers, who finished second to Calgary in the regular season but swept the Flames in the playoffs. In hopes of avoiding a repeat, Flames general manager Cliff Fletcher picked up Doug Gilmour, a superb two-way center, and winger Mark Hunter, a tough guy who can score (he had 68 goals spread over the past two seasons), from St. Louis.
In Edmonton, Gretzky is irreplaceable, of course, but things could be a lot worse. At least general manager-coach Glen Sather has Jimmy Carson to help fill the Great One's spot. The 20-year-old Carson had 92 goals in two seasons with L. A. Whatever slack Carson doesn't pick up will be handled by Edmonton's five other world-class players—Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Craig Simpson and Grant Fuhr, who simply is the world's best goaltender. And the Oilers proved last season that they know how to win without Gretzky; when the Great One was injured, Edmonton was 7-5-4.
The distinction of finishing last in the Norris Division will belong to Toronto. Through thick and thin—mostly thin—Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard has not wavered in his support of coach John Brophy. whose two-year record with the Leafs is 53-91-16. New general manager Gord Stellick, the 31-year-old wunderkind and former Leafs press-box gofer, will give Brophy until about Thanksgiving to turn things around.
Glare as he might, first-year Chicago Blackhawks coach Mike Keenan will not be able to undo in one year all the personnel blunders wrought over the last decade by general manager Bob Pulford. Still, Keenan, fired by the Flyers for his abrasive but successful methods, will not let the Blackhawks finish out of the playoffs.
Minnesota forward Brian MacLellan had the worst plus-minus rating in the league last season, a —44. The Stars' Curt Giles was next at —33. and now they have Mark Hardy, who had a —32 with the Rangers and the Kings. Perhaps the acquisition of Hardy will make MacLellan and Giles feel better about themselves. Minnesota will start the season on a sour note: The team's alltime leading scorer, Dino Ciccarelli, is holding out and demanding a trade. Mike Modano, whom the North Stars made the first pick in last June's amateur draft, is another holdout and has opted to play for his junior team. Prince Albert of the Western Hockey League. Ciccarelli pleaded guilty last January in an Eden Prairie, Minn., courtroom to the misdemeanor charge of indecent exposure. This summer he served a day in a Toronto jail for clubbing the Leafs' Luke Richardson in a game last season. That hardly puts him in an ideal bargaining position. New North Star coach Pierre Page, a respected technocrat as a Calgary assistant, will attempt to hide his team's lack of scoring behind muscle, which he has been importing in heavy doses.
Ron Caron, the St. Louis general manager, is trying a similar trick. Sick and tired of playing the 95-pound-weakling to Detroit's bullyboys—the Blues won only two of 13 regular-season and playoff games against the Wings last season—Caron fired coach Jacques Martin, hired ex-Blues captain Brian Sutter in his stead and began dealing for deltoids. Welcome 6' 5", 220-pound defenseman Dave Richter, former Vancouver basher. Hello to forward Craig Coxe, former Canucks and Flames tough guy.
The first six days of camp saw nine fights; in a Blues-Red Wings exhibition game there was a grand total of 57 penalties. Caron and Sutter are said to be pleased.
Detroit coach Jacques Demers is wondering: Now that the Oilers are Gretzky-less, might Detroit survive the Campbell Conference finals and play for the Stanley Cup? Twice Demers's teams have won the Norris Division playoff final, and twice his teams have lost to Edmonton in the conference final. These days Demers is shopping forwards Bob Probert and Petr Klima around the league. Both were among six Red Wings caught boozing it up at an Edmonton watering hole long past curfew on the night before Game 5 of the Campbell Conference final. Already this season, both players have been demoted to Adirondack: Probert for missing a team flight and Klima for missing a practice. Every team in the league would love to have Probert, a physical player with a great touch around the net, were it not for the fact that he is an alcoholic whose actions—declining to reenter a rehab program and drunk driving arrests—indicate that he doesn't fully grasp the seriousness of his problem.
Let's move to the Adams Division. Quebec head coach Ron Lapointe has surrounded himself with three former NHL head coaches: Andrè Savard, Jean Perron and Maurice Filion. All those puck smarts and Walt Poddubny, the high-scoring center acquired from the Rangers for defenseman Normand Rochefort, will not get the rebuilding Nordiques into the playoffs.
When the Hartford Whalers inexplicably scored fewer goals than all but one NHL team last season, general manager Emile Francis did not panic. The Cat dismissed as flukish bad luck the simultaneous slumps endured by mainstays Ron Francis, Kevin Dineen and Sylvain Turgeon. But if those three can't find the net this year, even the stalwart goal tending of Mike Liut won't get the Whalers past Round 1 of the playoffs.
Buffalo general manager Gerry Meehan was ominously quiet in the off-season. Other than a scoring vacuum at left wing, the Sabres—the most improved team this side of the New Jersey Devils and the Kings—look strong. Two Sabres, Ray Sheppard and Calle Johansson, were among the six to make the All-Rookie team last season. A third, Pierre Turgeon, erupted for four goals in six playoff games after a difficult regular season.
Once again Boston and Montreal will be by themselves atop the Adams. The Bruins ended their 45-year playoff drought against Montreal by beating the Habs last spring, helped in no small part by defenseman Michael Thelven's stick, which (accidentally) broke Habs sniper Stèphane Richer's thumb in Game 2. In the end, the play of wing Cam Neely. defenseman Raymond Bourque and goaltender Reggie Lemelin had more to do with Boston's victories than the absence of Richer. But can the 33-year-old Lemelin, who had the series of his life against Montreal, and an outstanding postseason, sustain that level of play? He and backup goalie Andy Moog will need to be sharper than ever for the first month of this season, until snakebit defenseman Gord Kluzak returns from his eighth knee operation.
Montreal's Pat Burns says he is a "players' coach." Nobody ever said such a thing about his dismissed predecessor, Jean Perron. Burns sits with his Canadiens in the back of the plane, and eats with them on road trips. A pushover, however, he is not. Burns, an ex-policeman from Gatineau, Quebec, has this warning for the handful of young Habs whose love of nightlife leads to occasional tardiness: "If there's one thing I learned in 16 years as a cop, it's how to spot a liar."
The Patrick Division promises to provide an instant replay of last season's frenetic finish when only seven points separated the six teams. In fact, the division's ultimate playoff champion. New Jersey, needed an overtime goal in the final regular-season game just to qualify for the playoffs.
To help the Caps cope with anxiety, Washington hired Jim McGee as the team psychologist. He should be busy. Two of the Caps' top three scorers last season were defensemen. The forwards need to start chipping in, but it won't be enough. Washington lacks the killer instinct to survive in the Patrick.
Aside from Tomas Sandstrom, New York Rangers coach Michel Bergeron will get most of his goal-scoring from a pair of 37-year-olds. Marcel Dionne and the aforementioned Lafleur. That's got to make Bergeron nervous, and so should the condition of starting goal-tender John Vanbiesbrouck's left wrist. VBK needed microsurgery after suffering lacerations of his ulnar nerve and partially severing three tendons in a household mishap last summer. There are too many question marks here.
Forget Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey, who will help Pittsburgh produce goals by the dozen. Can the Penguins succeed with Steve Guenette, Rick Tabaracci and Wendell Young in goal? Rookie coach Gene Ubriaco, whose Baltimore Skipjack team was 13-58-9 last year, means business. He has already sent bodyguard Wayne Van Dorp back to Pittsburgh for failing to intercede when Montreal's Steve Martinson took several swings at Coffey during an exhibition game.
As usual, the New York Islanders have enviable depth at center with Pat Lafontaine. Brent Sutter and Bryan Trottier. But defenseman Denis Potvin has retired and sniper Mike Bossy is all but retired with a bad back. Can the Islanders' young defensemen—Dean Chynoweth, Gerald Diduck, Jeff Finley and Jeff Norton—keep the crease clear? The muscleless Islanders are still in the rebuilding stage.
It looks as if Viacheslav Fetisov, the Bobby Orr of the U.S.S.R., won't be suiting up for the New Jersey Devils anytime soon. Still, with goalie Sean Burke, the Ken Dryden of East Rutherford, and the emergence of such good forwards as Pat Verbeek (46 goals last season) and Aaron Broten (26 goals, 83 points) the Devils' dog days are over.
The problem in Philadelphia a year ago was that the Flyers weren't big and bad often enough, which meant that goaltender Ron Hextall saw more rubber than he could handle. So, general manager Bob Clarke took measures to upgrade the team's surliness, acquiring two gnarly defensemen: ex-Nordique Terry Carkner, who had a 10-game suspension for fighting last season, and ex-King Jay Wells, who in nine NHL seasons has 34 goals and 1,446 penalty minutes. Something tells us these guys are going to go over big in the Spectrum.