Grown men cry over The Stanley Cup. NOBODY gives a damn about the Presidents' Trophy, the lovely parting gift the New York Rangers took home last spring for finishing with the NHL's best regular-season record.
The Rangers feasted on the competition all winter, only to discover that the battles of April and May don't take shape until March. In what is becoming something of a tradition, the Stanley Cup was seized by the right team (the Pittsburgh Penguins) with the right general manager (Craig Patrick), who made the right deal (acquiring feisty forward Rick Tocchet) at the right time (two weeks before the trading deadline). It was the second year in a row that Patrick beat the March deadline with a trade that jolted the Penguins to the championship; in '91 he stole center Ron Francis and defenseman Ulf Samuelsson from the hapless Hartford Whalers. The New York Islanders pioneered the technique way back in '80 when they picked up Butch Goring in a March trade that helped them win the first of their four straight Cups.
Does Patrick have another ace up his sleeve? Will the Rangers make the move that finally gets them over the top? Can the Detroit Red Wings, the most-talented team in the league, relieve coach and general manager Bryan Murray's playoff agony with a late-season move to commandeer the Cup? Or will some other general manager (the Edmonton Oilers' wily Glen Sather, perhaps) pull a blockbuster deal out of his hat?
The interminable 84-game schedule, played to line the owners' pockets and only incidentally to decide which eight of the 24 teams don't make the playoffs, was expanded from 80 games in the settlement of last April's players strike. That merely makes the season a longer warmup for the time when the games really count. "You finish first in the regular season, and they give you this big cheese plate," says new Los Angeles King coach Barry Melrose. "Thanks, but we'd rather win the Cup."
Not this season, Barry. Only three teams have a real chance to engrave the names of their players on the base of the Cup. The rest are flashes who'll burn out in the playoffs, pipsqueaks, has-beens and assorted flotsam and jetsam.
Here's our forecast for the long term. In the meantime, pass the cheese, please.
When the Penguins and Rangers finish beating each other's brains out in the Patrick Division playoffs, what will the survivor have left? Enough to get to the Cup finals? Maybe. Enough to win the Cup? Maybe not.
That's where the Detroit Red Wings come in. Stunned by their utter collapse in the Norris Division finals—they were swept by the Chicago Blackhawks—the Wings have added fire and depth. The fire will be provided by sniper Dino Ciccarelli, acquired from the Washington Capitals for forward Kevin Miller in a draft-day coup, and by 37-year-old free-agent defenseman Mark Howe, whose father, Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, played on the last Detroit team to win the Cup, in 1955.
The depth will be enhanced by the arrival of center Vyacheslav Kozlov, possibly the most talented player yet to jump from Russia to the NHL. With Kozlov, Detroit is deeper up the middle than any other team in the league. Steve Yzerman is a potential MVP, and Sergei Fedorov and Jimmy Carson are good enough to be frontline centers almost everywhere else. Murray, who has never coached a team to the Cup finals, will be free to dangle Carson, or maybe even Yzerman, as trade bait for a monster defenseman or a goaltender who won't die of exhaustion in the playoffs the way Tim Cheveldae did last season.
Ciccarelli, Ray Sheppard and Paul Ysebaert give the Wings three proven 30-goal scorers on the right side. The power is deployed on the left wing with big forwards Bob Probert, Shawn Burr and Keith Primeau. The defense is solid, and the return to health of backup goalie Vincent Riendeau should mean that Cheveldae, who played a league-leading 72 regular-season games in '91-92, won't have to do that again.
New rules designed to curb fighting and high-sticking will make depth a crucial asset. Penalties will likely be meted out more often, placing added stress on the power-play and penalty-killing units. "That's going to make room for the real talent guys," Murray says. "We have a pretty good team for this type of game." They have a pretty good team for any type of game.
The Pittsburgh Penguins went to camp without a coach for the second year in a row. "It doesn't matter," says power forward Kevin Stevens, a 54-goal scorer last season. "We can win with any coach."
But with no coach? How about a cardboard cutout of the phlegmatic Scotty Bowman? Would anyone be able to tell the difference between that and the real thing? As of Monday night it seemed unlikely that Bowman would return. The Penguins wouldn't exactly be crushed—they never really meshed with Bowman last season. In March, Patrick had to call a team meeting to beg the defending champions to bear down and simply make the playoffs. From then on, inspired by Tocchet and carried at times by superstar Mario Lemieux, they rallied, ultimately winning 11 games in a row, including a sweep of Chicago in the finals. "The dynasty is here in Pittsburgh," said Stevens.
It's great to be young and a Penguin, as long as Lemieux is wearing the gold and black. Even though a back injury limited Super Mario to 64 games last season, he finished with a league-leading 131 points. The emergence of Jaromir Jagr (page 40) as a star in the playoffs raises the possibility that the reigning Mr. Hockey will get to tutor his successor.
Championships don't come cheaply. The salaries of Lemieux (on Monday he signed a reported seven-year, $42-million deal), Stevens ($1.375 million a year), Jagr ($1.2 million) and big-game goaltender Tom Barrasso ($1.3 million) have drained Patrick's resources. Six players are gone from last season's playoff roster, most notably forwards Phil Bourque, who signed with the Rangers as a free agent, and Bryan Trottier, who took his six championship rings back to the Islanders, for whom he's serving in the front office as the executive assistant to the president. Despite the defections, Pittsburgh remains a team that knows how to win and wins when it has to. The Penguins' philosophy is to get to the playoffs and let the talent take over. They've proved that it works.
By contrast, the New York Rangers have yet to prove anything. After they blew a 2-1 series lead and dropped three games in a row to Pittsburgh in the Patrick Division finals, there was a notable chill in the air between coach Roger Neilson and league MVP Mark Messier. Neilson's detractors say Neilson, whose teams always play aggressively, places too much emphasis on goon tactics in the postseason.
Now more pressure than ever is on Neilson to break the Rangers' 52-year Stanley Cup jinx. They have loads of high-priced talent—Messier, defenseman Brian Leetch, forward Mike Gartner—and even though they lost the Eric Lindros sweepstakes to the Philadelphia Flyers, at least they maintained their depth. General manager Neil Smith brought in Bourque and seemed close to signing 19-year-old Russian prodigy Alexei Kovalev, a dazzling shooter and stickhandler. Smith still has two No. 1 goalies, Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck, leaving him some leeway for the big March trade he didn't make last season.
Is this the Rangers' year? Sniffs Montreal Canadien general manager Serge Savard, "It's supposed to be their year every year."
Driven by relentless coach Mike Keenan, the disciplined Chicago Blackhawks romped through last season's strike-addled playoffs, dumping and chasing their way to the Stanley Cup finals. Keenan has been nudged upstairs, leaving new coach Darryl Sutter to find ways to squeeze more offense out of the same cast of characters. Center Jeremy Roenick (53 goals, 50 assists in 1991-92) is a stud, but he can't do it all by himself.
No one's laughing at the Vancouver Canucks anymore. Pat Quinn's five-year plan finally bore a dividend last season when the erstwhile Canuckleheads won their first Smythe Division crown. Rookie of the Year Pavel Bure doesn't turn 22 until March; it's safe to say the Russian Rocket will only get better. Vancouver also has a championship-caliber goaltender in iron man Kirk McLean, who spent 65 games in the net last season. But Quinn stood pat over the summer, failing to deal for a center or the dominant defenseman who could help his talented team get to the next level.
The Montreal Canadiens have struggled in recent years to live up to their legacy, the 22 Stanley Cup banners that hang from the rafters of the Forum. They haven't won the Cup since '86, though they've made a habit of teasing their oh-so-serious fans with success in the regular season followed by an infuriating playoff collapse. Worst of all, they've lost with a boring, defensive style. Unpopular coach Pat Burns resigned in June to move behind the bench of the Toronto Maple Leafs, saving Savard the trouble of firing him. Burns, a tough-talking former cop, was replaced by his opposite—colorful Jacques Demers, an indefatigable optimist who had successful stints with the Red Wings (1986-90) and the St. Louis Blues (1983-86).
Montreal should at least be entertaining, thanks to the addition of high-scoring forwards Vincent Damphousse and Brian Bellows. Damphousse was acquired from Edmonton for Shayne Corson, Brent Gilchrist and change; Bellows, the Minnesota North Stars' alltime leading scorer, cost the Canadiens disgruntled forward Russ Courtnall. The two sharpshooters, together with center Denis Savard and forwards Kirk Muller and Gilbert Dionne, give Montreal a much more potent attack. Goaltender Patrick Roy, the perennial Vezina Trophy winner, remains the last line of defense.
Every year the cash-poor Edmonton Oilers dump high-salaried players in exchange for prospects and retreads. Yet the Oilers go right on winning. Last year general manager Sather sent Messier to the Rangers and goalie Grant Fuhr to the Leafs, and then watched as Edmonton advanced to the Campbell Conference finals for the third season in a row. This season captain Kevin Lowe and forward Joe Murphy have been training-camp holdouts. Before the new year you can expect Sather to magically swap these malcontents for a promising package of players that will combine with scorers Bernie Nicholls and Craig Simpson, pesky Esa Tikkanen and goalie Bill Ranford to make Edmonton a force in the playoffs again.
Sharpshooter Joe Juneau, who arrived from the Canadian Olympic team last season in time to help the Boston Bruins soar inexplicably to the Wales Conference finals, earned his pilot's license during the off-season. He'll need all his skills to keep this team aloft. For the Bruins to get back to the final four, forward Cam Neely's damaged left knee will have to show drastic improvement.
The moment may have passed for the Washington Capitals, who were second only to the Rangers during the 1991-92 regular season. The Caps took a 3-1 series lead over the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs and then collapsed. Dumping Ciccarelli and his $625,000 salary hasn't played well in the dressing room, and the sense of dread deepened when forward Randy Burridge suffered a season-ending knee injury last month. The stars are all gone or fading, but Washington has enough no-name talent to be competitive.
Herb Brooks is back. The man who led the 1980 U.S. Olympic team to the Miracle on Ice and then was fired from NHL jobs with the Rangers and the North Stars, is now coaching the New Jersey Devils. Scott Stevens anchors the best corps of defensemen in the league, but Miracle II will remain on ice until the Jersey boys get a real center or two. Brooks wasted no time indoctrinating the Devils into his innovative training techniques. "I call it hybrid hockey," he says of his system. After a few sessions of skating around with 20-pound lead-packed vests over their sweaters, the Devils called it "Herbie Hockey."
The Buffalo Sabres will play hard and fast and score a lot of goals. It will be fun to watch as Pat LaFontaine, the best center in the NHL after Lemieux, prompts erratic world-class talent Alexander Mogilny to elevate his game to world-class level.
Keep an eye on the Winnipeg Jets, who have the most international roster in the league. They surged into the playoffs last season with the help of U.S. Olympian Keith Tkachuk, a March arrival. Big (6'2", 205 pounds) and fearless, Tkachuk heads a crop of rookies that includes forward Teemu Selanne of Finland and center Alexei Zhamnov of Russia. Phil Housley keys a mobile back line, and Bob Essensa and Rick Tabaracci may be the best two goalies nobody has ever heard of.
Without Wayne Gretzky, who's sidelined indefinitely with a herniated thoracic disk, you can write off the Los Angeles Kings. Coach Melrose has been reading the business-psych best-seller Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, but it was owner Bruce McNall who has been acting uncivilized, grounding the team plane and making the Kings fly commercial. "I'm not going to reward this team for losses," McNall said during training camp. "I'll give them back the plane if we lose 10 in a row. Without pilots."
The outlook is a bit brighter on Long Island, where the New York Islanders are trumpeting The New Ice Age in what appears to be a futile attempt to boost sagging attendance at grimy Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders have new management, mainly Trottier and general manager Don Maloney, but the same old coach, Al Arbour. The former general manager, Bill Torrey, still remains on the payroll as a consultant. "I'm an insultant," says Torrey. "And I'm insulting to the best of my ability."
Now it's our turn. The Islanders—who do have some talented young players, like center Pierre Turgeon—can make all the new ice they want. They'll still miss the Patrick Division playoffs, as will the Philadelphia Flyers, who stripped their team to get Lindros. The Flyers aren't completely gutted; they lack defense and an established No. 1 goalie, but they have talent up front, with forward Mark Recchi, center Rod Brind' Amour and Lindros, the superstar-to-be.
Meanwhile the Lindros-less Quebec Nordiques look like a playoff team, thanks to former Flyers such as goalie Ron Hextall, center Mike Ricci and defenseman Steve Duchesne. Nordique center Joe Sakic has even tried to revive the long-dormant rivalry with the Canadiens by suggesting that Quebec will battle Boston for the Adams Division crown, with Montreal an also-ran.
New Calgary Flame coach Dave King is so confident he can teach his team a thing or two that he installed a classroom in the Saddle-dome (defenseman Frank Musil could tell the class some fascinating stories about his summer job—working the killing floor in a slaughterhouse). King inherits a league-high four former 50-goal scorers: Gary Roberts, Theo Fleury, Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Leeman. Unfortunately for Calgary, only Roberts scored 50 last season.
Former Flame general manager Cliff Fletcher now has the same job with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he should be ashamed of himself for the way he took advantage of his replacement in Calgary, Doug Risebrough. The trade Fletcher made last season, sending Leeman and a bunch of other stiffs to the Flames for playmaking center Doug Gilmour, defenseman Jamie Macoun and forward Kent Manderville, vastly improved the formerly decrepit Leafs, who finished strong and barely missed the playoffs. Now they might even overtake the St. Louis Blues—gee, maybe this will be the season Brett Hull scores 100 goals for a really bad team—for third place in the Norris Division. At the very least we should be spared yet another bum's rush in the playoffs by the erratic Minnesota North Stars. Courtnall and Mike Modano are fast, and they can score, but they won't score fast enough to offset the goals allowed by overrated goalie Jon Casey.
New Hartford Whaler general manager Brian Burke has a shamrock tattooed on his derriere. Good thing—he'll need all the luck he can muster. The Whalers lost their annual free pass to the playoffs when Quebec made the Lindros deal. Burke and coach Paul Holmgren, who met during an on-ice brawl in a Minnesota summer league in 1973, have a major reclamation project on their hands.
After showing bits of promise—and selling truck-loads of nifty souvenirs—in their debut season, the San Jose Sharks started swimming in the wrong direction. In June general manager Jack Ferreira lost a power struggle and was fired. Three men supposedly will share his duties, but a three-headed shark is a loathsome thing to behold.
Expect the Ottawa Senators, one of the league's two new expansion teams, to lose often and dismally. Ottawa's most noteworthy player is Mike Peluso, who spent a league-leading 408 minutes in the penalty box for the Blackhawks last season.
With the help of benevolent Japanese investors, Phil Esposito has brought the NHL to Florida. That is, if you consider the Tampa Bay Lightning an NHL team. Under the direction of Espo, the general manager, the Lightning's initial training camp was a circus. The main attraction was Manon Rheaume, who was bidding to become the first female goalie in league history. Instead she hobbled off to the minors with another distinction: the first female goalie in NHL history to suffer a groin pull.