The Oilers are a team with two missions: to prove last year was an aberration and that they are truly the team of the '80s, and to cleanse themselves of allegations of drug abuse that were made in this magazine after their loss to Calgary in the division finals.
To do so they have six of the finest players in the world—Gretzky (215 points, breaking his own record), Jari Kurri (68 goals, the most in the NHL), Glenn Anderson (54 goals), Mark Messier (35), defenseman Paul Coffey (48) and goalie Grant Fuhr. The Oiler offensive machine scored more than 400 goals for the fifth straight year, a feat unmatched in league history. One hundred goals for Gretzky? Don't be too surprised. The Great One turns 26 in January; he's just reaching his prime.
As fate would have it, the most notable Oilers goal scorer of last season was none other than Steve Smith, the unfortunate defenseman who shot the puck off Fuhr's leg for the goal that gave Calgary the win in Game 7 of the division finals. When Smith returned home to London, Ont., this summer there were more than 1,000 pieces of mail. And, no, it wasn't hate mail. "A lot were letters from kids," Smith says. "One guy tried to cheer me up by telling me he'd also scored on his own goal in soccer. He asked if I wanted to hear a joke to make me feel better. Another said there was always a place for me on his ball hockey team."
Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames should be feeling quite good about themselves. The perennial bridesmaids turned Oiler-killers last season. But the question must be asked: Have they peaked? As coach Bob Johnson is fond of saying, the Cup-finalist Flames climbed the mountain last season. Is it all downhill from there? Probably not, but don't look for another upset of Edmonton. Sniper Joey Mullen, acquired from St. Louis in midseason, will get his 40 goals, rough-and-tumble center Joel Otto (25 goals last season) will emerge as a two-way star, and rookie of the year Gary Suter will become the best all-around defenseman west of Washington's Rod Langway. This is a good team getting better. But 180 miles north, up Highway 2, reside the Oilers, a great team getting angrier.
Now consider the plight of the Los Angeles Kings and Winnipeg Jets. L.A.'s best defenseman is its coach ( Pat Quinn) and its best goalie is general manager ( Rogie Vachon), while Winnipeg's two toughest guys are its G.M. ( John Ferguson) and coach ( Dan Maloney). Both clubs collapsed last season, and both can only improve...can't they?
Vachon has been stockpiling first-round draft picks such as center Jim Carson (No. 9 overall in the class of '86), left wings Craig Duncanson (No. 9 in '85) and Dan Gratton (No. 10 in '85). Better still, left wing Luc Robitaille (ninth round in '84) was last season's Canadian junior Player of the Year while playing for Hull. The infusion of young blood on a team that boasts Marcel Dionne (No. 2 alltime scorer behind Gordie Howe) could mean a playoff berth for the Kings. With only two years left on his $600,000-per-year contract, Dionne has pretty much given up on the idea of bringing a Cup to Los Angeles. "I just want us to be competitive," he says. In this, his 16th season, the Kings should surprise a few people by reaching that modest goal.
A pall settled over the Jets last season when Ferguson sent David Babych, a puck-handling, 40-minutes-per-game defenseman, to Hartford for hardworking but run-of-the-mill winger Ray Neufeld and then dealt defenseman Robert Picard to Quebec for Mario Marois, also a defenseman. He fixed what wasn't broken, and the chemistry the Jets had developed in 1984-85 went up in smoke. They are counting on their new coach, Maloney, and their only real star, Dale Hawerchuk, to regain that spirit, along with respectability. Oh, and don't forget goaltending, which is sometimes easy to forget in the high-scoring Smythe. The Jets tried four goalies in three playoff games last year, and this season's probable starting duo of Steve Penney—picked up from Montreal—and Marc Behrend does not figure to create an air of invincibility in Winnipeg.
Vancouver has gone from the status quo to the status woe. The Canucks finally made some trades, but did somebody say the best trades are sometimes the ones you never make? First, they guaranteed the Bruins a franchise player by sending their top pick next season and cornerman Cam Neely to Boston for Barry Pederson, a playmaking center. Then they shipped out promising defenseman J.J. Daigneault to Philadelphia for tough guy Dave Richter and Rich Sutter, who is the sixth-best of the six brothers. And you wonder why Bruin G.M. Harry Sinden and Flyer G.M. Bobby Clarke are smiling.