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.