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.