One way or another, the NHL will never be the same.
The 1993-94 season opens with new teams in Florida and California, an old team in Texas and no team in Minnesota. To the delight of casual fans, the division names—Adams, Patrick, Norris and Smythe—have been consigned to the dustbin of history, replaced by user-friendly names that make geographic sense. On top of that, a new playoff structure, involving the top eight teams in each conference, should ensure a stronger field.
"We're going big-time," says Jacques Demers, coach of the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens. "Finally, this league is heading in the right direction."
Imagine that. A few things still need work. The 84-game regular season, for example, is way too long and somewhat meaningless. Sometime around the summer solstice, Pittsburgh, whose dynasty was rudely interrupted by the New York Islanders last season, will defeat Detroit to win the Cup for the third time in four years.
With a 56-21-7 record and an 18-game unbeaten streak in the last month of the regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins swaggered into the playoffs. They won't make that mistake again.
"We put too much importance on the regular season," center Mario Lemieux said over the summer. Last season Lemieux missed 24 games with various ailments—including Hodgkin's disease, which is now in remission—but still won his fourth scoring title, with 160 points. "When we won our first two Stanley Cups, we paced ourselves all season. I think that's the way we have to look at it." As if to underscore the point, Lemieux is planning to finesse the first month of the season to give his surgically repaired back more time to recover. Lemieux's easy-does-it approach, though, won't endear him to the fans paying $40 a pop for regular-season tickets.
Former Penguin coach Scotty Bowman, who was the scapegoat for the team's second-round departure from the playoffs, took his 834 career wins and six Stanley Cup rings to Detroit. In his place stands Eddie Johnston, who during an earlier tour of duty behind the Penguin bench (1980 to '83) became the third-losingest coach (79-126-35) in Penguin history. Johnston drafted Lemieux and traded for power forward Kevin Stevens, but he hasn't coached in a decade. Unlike Bowman, Johnston is Mario-approved, and with bodyguards Rick Tocchet and Marty McSorley, goalie Tom Barrasso and center Ron Francis among Lemieux's supporting cast, the transition shouldn't be too tough.
Except, perhaps, on the nights the Penguins play the Quebec Nordiques. Pierre Pagè, the Nordique coach and general manager, reacted angrily when Lemieux seemed to be belittling the Northeast Division race by suggesting he would take it easier during the regular season. "That's——, complete——," Pagè says. "Anybody who dogs it, they're not going to be around at the end."
The Nordiques made the biggest single-season improvement of any team in NHL history last season, doubling their point total from 52 in '91-92 to 104. And that was only the first step. Swedish center Peter Forsberg, the best player not currently playing in the NHL, signed a reported four-year, $10 million contract. After the Winter Olympics, and in plenty of time for the playoffs, he's expected to join young guns Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan to make Quebec what could become the most dangerous offensive team in the league. Dangerous, however, is also an apt description of the Nordiques' goaltending: Untested 23-year-old Stèphane Fiset will take over in the nets.
In their first playoff appearance in six years, the Nordiques led the hated Montreal Canadiens 2-0 in the division semifinals before self-destructing. The Canadiens went on to outwork, outwit and outluck three more teams en route to their 24th Stanley Cup. But there's no rest for the weary. Not long after the Canadiens eliminated the Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 of the finals, center Stephan Lebeau was stopped by a janitor in a dank stairway at the Montreal Forum. "Are you guys going to win the Cup next year?" the man asked.
Lebeau couldn't believe it. "Hey, we've only had the thing for 10 minutes!" he said. "Let me enjoy it!" As usual, the Canadiens will go as far as goalie Patrick Roy, the playoff MVP, can carry them.
It took Al Arbour all season to get his young players to believe in themselves, but in the post-season the New York Islanders were a joy to watch. Building on that success, stylish center Pierre Turgeon, rugged defenseman Darius Kasparaitis and new goalie Ron Hextall should power the Isles to their first division title in six years.
The Washington Capitals were tired of watching their talented European forwards get pushed around. So, with punishing center Dale Hunter suspended until Nov. 21 because of the heinous late hit he dealt Turgeon in the playoffs, the Caps acquired tough-guy forward Craig Berube from Calgary and minor league enforcer Enrico Ciccone, who was arrested last season after having an altercation with a photographer stationed in the penalty box during a game. "He's crazy," says fellow Capital enforcer Alan May, with a hint of admiration.
Even if power forward Cam Neely has completely recovered from the knee and thigh ailments that have limited him to 22 games the past two seasons (not likely), and linemate Joe Juneau surpasses his great rookie season (likely), and goalie Jon Casey makes the locals finally forget about Gerry Cheevers (not a chance), the Boston Bruins still won't get within sniffing distance of the Cup.
Neither will the New York Rangers, which may come as a shock to new coach Mike Keenan. On the first day of camp, Iron Mike showed the Rangers a videotape of the route their victory parade might take when they win the Cup for the first time since 1940. Dream on. Although he and Keenan were acting like pals, fading center Mark Messier earned a reputation as a coach-killer last year, when he orchestrated a dressing-room rebellion against the now-departed Roger Neilson. Messier won that battle, but lost the war, as the Rangers tumbled from first to last in the division. They'll be better, but not that much better.
For the fifth time in general manager Lou Lamoriello's six-year tenure, the New Jersey Devils have a new coach. This time the unlucky Devil is Jacques Lemaire, who brought fellow Canadien Hall of Famer Larry Robinson with him as an assistant. "Let's hope a little of their magic rubs off," says Devil defenseman Ken Daneyko. It won't unless Lamoriello trades for a No. 1 center.
With a shocking first-round sweep of the Bruins, the Buffalo Sabres achieved a major goal: They won a playoff series for the first time in 10 years. That done, they could find themselves playing some early golf next spring, which may be just as well since they can't seem to get enough of that game. Roly-poly goalie Grant Fuhr reported to camp 25 pounds overweight, after spending the summer on the course but off a weight-training program. Golf has also occupied reigning goal-scoring co-champ Alexander Mogilny, whose surgically repaired ankle didn't keep him off the links. It may, however, keep him off the ice until the end of October.
Considering that he missed 23 games with a gimpy left knee, towering center Eric Lindros had a monster rookie season, scoring 41 goals. Lindros's linemate Mark Recchi had a career year with 123 points, but the Philadelphia Flyers need more than those two players to make the playoffs. They're a year away.
The Ottawa Senators, who finished with the worst record (10-70-4) in the league as an expansion team, and the Hartford Whalers, who weren't an expansion team but played like one, made great strides at the entry draft last June. The Senators took center Alexandre Daigle No. 1, and the Whalers astutely traded up to get defenseman Chris Pronger, who many feel was the best player in the draft. Both are future stars.
Five-time 30-goal-scorer Petr Klima brought his Edmonton Oiler pants with him when he was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning, then painted them black. Why? "They're mine," Klima said. Can't argue with that or with the Lightning's emergence as the strongest of the recent wave of expansion teams. They'll be challenged by a new cross-state rival, the Miami-based Florida Panthers, whose training-camp regimen included beach volleyball.
Steve Yzerman knows he may be running out of time. "At some point, soon, we have to get something accomplished," says Yzerman, the 28-year-old captain of the Detroit Red Wings.
Disgusted with the Red Wings' annual disappearing act in the playoffs, owner Mike Hitch brought in Bowman, the winningest coach in NHL history. Bowman is a demanding boss and an innovative thinker. To make the most of Detroit's scoring potential, he may put highflying center Sergei Fedorov on Yzerman's right wing. "Scotty will make the difference," says Bryan Murray, who gave up coaching to concentrate on his duties as general manager. "He's a very confident guy."
As opposed to goalie Tim Cheveldae, who was devastated by last year's harrowing seven-game loss to Toronto in the first round. "I couldn't sleep," he said. "It consumed my whole life." Before the doors fall off, Chevy ought to be recalled and replaced by a newer model. That would give the Wings a better chance at the Cup.
Burdened by his rock-star popularity in western Canada, Pavel Bure of the Vancouver Canucks fled to L.A. to spend the summer working out under the watchful eye of his father, Vladimir, a former Olympic swimmer. The Russian Rocket went into orbit last season, scoring 60 goals and leading the Canucks to a second consecutive division title. But coach and general manager (Stand) Pat Quinn lived up to his nickname in the off-season, and it's clear Vancouver won't win the Cup on rocket fuel alone.
A Stanley Cup runner-up hasn't made it back to the finals since 1984. For the Los Angeles Kings to break the streak, they'll need a great season from the Great One. Wayne Gretzky missed 39 games last year because of a herniated disk in his upper back but returned to lead all scorers in the playoffs. Owner Bruce McNall rewarded Gretzky with a new three-year contract worth $25.5 million, making him the highest-paid player in any team sport. He enters the season with 765 goals, 36 short of Gordie Howe's record.
General manager Cliff Fletcher, coach Pat Burns and center Doug Gilmour turned the Toronto Maple Leafs from a laughingstock into a contender practically overnight. Burns burns with the desire to win, and he instilled a never-say-die attitude that carried the Leafs within one game of the finals. To get that far again, Gilmour, 30, will have to duplicate his team-carrying 127-point season, and acrobatic goalie Felix (the Cat) Potvin, 22, must avoid anything remotely resembling a sophomore slump.
Despite facing a league-high 2,202 shots last season, Curtis Joseph of the St. Louis Blues emerged with his reputation and his sanity intact. His mask, however, was another story. Cracked and battered, it's on display at the new Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Unfortunately, the arrival of defenseman Phil Housley from Winnipeg will bolster only the offense. The encouraging news for the Blues is that scoring machine Brett Hull, who "slumped" to 54 goals last season, was flashing his million-dollar smile with regularity in training camp.
The slogan for the Chicago Blackhawks in their final season in thunderous Chicago Stadium is "Remember the Roar." Sadly, the Hawks are apt to go out with a whimper. The glaring weaknesses exposed by Pittsburgh in the '91 finals have yet to be shored up. Jeremy Roenick remains the only consistent scoring threat, and evil-tempered goalie Ed Belfour has yet to prove he can win a big game.
The Winnipeg Jets are Euro-trashing TV commentator Don Cherry's worst nightmare. They brought 20 Europeans to training camp, and nearly 40% of their roster will be populated by non-North Americans. Foremost among them is Teemu Selanne, the Finnish Flash, who set a rookie record last year with 76 goals. Selanne is something of a hero in his native Finland, where he drives in road rallies under the alias Ted Flash. It caused quite a stir in his homeland this summer when he was caught speeding and lost his driver's license. "There is a lot of competition between the newspapers there," he says. "They would like to report it every time I go to the toilet."
The toilet is exactly where the Calgary Flames have descended since they won the Cup in 1989. Thanks to the cleverness of coach Dave King and the relative weakness of the conference, they'll probably sputter their way into the playoffs.
Leaving grieving fans and a still-pending sexual-harassment suit in his wake, owner Norm Green has re-created the Minnesota North Stars as the Dallas Stars. In Texas, he figures, the chants of "Norm sucks!" that he heard in Minnesota will be a dim memory. The Stars look the same, and they'll probably play the same, barring a breakout season by center Mike Modano and a major comeback by goalie Andy Moog, who was booted from Boston after faltering in the playoffs.
The San Jose Sharks were toothless in their second season, so over the summer they added a couple of Russian retreads to give their anemic power play some bite. "We're going to put live guys on the ice who will make your eyes spin," promises director of hockey operations Dean Lombardi, Yeah, right.
Any resemblance between the Edmonton Oilers of today and the dynasty of yesterday is purely coincidental. Owner Peter Pocklington has pared the payroll to around $8 million and seems poised to move this gutted franchise south of the border. Houston, maybe?
The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim are exhibiting behavior that's most un-Disney-like. Duck enforcer Stu Grimson, a.k.a. the Grim Reaper, even says, "We won't be intimidated." The Ducks figure to be more beast than beauty.
The way we see it
1. New York Islanders*
2. Washington Capitals*
3. New York Rangers*
4. New Jersey Devils*
5. Philadelphia Flyers
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
7. Florida Panthers
1. Quebec Nordiques*
2. Pittsburgh Penguins*
3. Montreal Canadiens*
4. Boston Bruins*
5. Buffalo Sabres
6. Hartford Whalers
7. Ottawa Senators
1. Detroit Red Wings*
2. Toronto Maple Leafs*
3. St. Louis Blues*
4. Chicago Blackhawks*
5. Winnipeg Jets*
6. Dallas Stars
1. Vancouver Canucks*
2. Los Angeles Kings*
3. Calgary Flames*
4. San Jose Sharks
5. Edmonton Oilers
6. Mighty Ducks of Anaheim
Eastern Conference Finals
Pittsburgh over Quebec
Western Conference Finals
Detroit over St. Louis
Pittsburgh over Detroit