Smiles are few in the Patrick. Perhaps it's the memory of four years of Islander domination, or having to box those blasted Philadelphia Flyers eight times a year, or the knowledge that theirs is not the best division in hockey any longer.
Such serious fellows. You've got Iron Mike Keenan, the stern mind behind the Flyers; Bryan Murray, who has to offer poker-faced explanations about why his Washington Caps don't go anywhere; Bob Berry, who's as somber as any man should be, having to coach Pittsburgh; Ted Sator, the Ranger coach whose players defect to Europe; and the Islanders' Terry Simpson, who can't grin until he proves he can fill the shoes of Al Arbour.
Loosen up, guys. There's no suspense. The Flyers should blow everybody away and find themselves in the Cup finals against Edmonton. The Flyers fell to the Rangers in last season's playoffs for one reason: Their defensive foursome of Mark Howe, Brad Marsh, Brad McCrimmon and Doug Cross-man was overworked. Enter, by trade from Vancouver, J.J. Daigneault, a puck-handling defenseman of vast promise. It was the heist of the off-season. Now watch the best defense in the league prove that it is.
"I believe it's time for this club to do something," says general manager Bobby Clarke. With that defense and the return of Tim Kerr (58 goals), Brian Propp (40) and Ilkka Sinisalo (39), it will.
There's little doubt that the Capitals, the best team that never went anywhere, will finish in second. Led by defenders Rod Langway and Scott Stevens, along with right wing Mike Gartner, this team is too sound defensively to suffer much of a fall. It might take the Caps a while to hit their stride: Bengt Gustafsson, their best all-around player last season, decided to return to his native Sweden. The Caps are hoping Czech defector Michal Pivonka can fill in. But for Washington to shake the playoff swoons, Bobby Carpenter, who slumped from 53 to 27 goals last season, must come on as both an offensive force and a leader.
The changing of the guard is finally complete on Long Island. On May 28, Arbour, the architect of the Islanders' four straight Stanley Cups, retired to become vice-president in charge of player development. His successor, Simpson, inherits the offensive heart and soul of the Isles of old in Mike Bossy (123 points), Bryan Trottier (96) and Denis Potvin, who last season broke Bobby Orr's records for most career goals (279) and points (959) by a defenseman. But success for the new Isles depends on their kids—Pat LaFontaine, Patrick Flatley, Tomas Jonsson and Mikko Makela. Kelly Hrudey has won the No. 1 role in net over Billy Smith and will no doubt see lots of rubber.
For a team that hasn't won a Cup since Roosevelt was president—and you might be excused for asking which Roosevelt—the New York Rangers have a way of holding your attention. Last season—a lousy one (36-38-6)—several Rangers took to the media to bellyache about rookie coach Sator. Then, in March, high-scoring center Mark Pavelich left the team. After all that, the Rangers won a conference final berth against Montreal. But it didn't stop there. In the off-season. Hall of Famer Phil Esposito was hired as general manager and made a zillion moves in his first six hours in office. With that, team captain Barry Beck announced he would rather rot than play for this regime, and fellow defenseman Reijo Routsalainen took off to play this season in Switzerland.
So, how long will the offense-minded Esposito meld with defense-minded Ted Sator? Can the Rangers, whose leading scorer, Mike Ridley (22-43), finished 76th in the league, find someone to put the puck in the net? If that someone is Pierre Larouche, can he survive a full season with Sator? Can Vezina-winning goalie John Vanbiesbrouck carry the team again? Was that Herb Brooks in Pam's shower? Stay tuned.
Somebody had better talk some sense into those Pittsburgers. The Steelers are lousy and the Pirates are the pits, so now they're counting on the Penguins to take up the slack. Yes, the Pens improved 23 points last season. Yes, Mario Lemieux is the greatest thing since 500 drafts. Yes, the young defense of Moe Mantha and Doug Bodger and Jim Johnson and Ville Siren helped chop off a goal per game compared with 1984-85. But no, the Pens will not make the playoffs. The depth isn't there.
The New Jersey Devils tied their Kansas City-Colorado- East Rutherford-and-any-points-in-between franchise record with 59 points last season. There are four goalies fighting to suffer the unenviable batterings. Poor Devils. Will they ever get better?