The 1988-89 NHL season has us quivering in anticipation as we have not quivered since, oh, Wayne Gretzky met actress Janet Jones. For one thing, with Gretzky now skating on the Left Coast, where he can be closer to his pregnant wife, we'll see a change in the balance of power in the Smythe Division.
We'll also see 14 games against two teams from the Soviet major league. And we'll see, we hope, more competent referees, thanks to new incentive clauses in the refs' contracts and more support from the league hierarchy. We'll not see so much gore on the ice, thanks to stricter rules against malevolent stickwork. And we'll see Guy Lafleur as a New York Ranger—four years after he retired as a Montreal Canadien, 3� years after they hung his number 10 in the rafters at the Forum, and a month after he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
It's too bad that when the season is over and the Edmonton Oilers are trying to figure out what to do with their fifth Stanley Cup ring in six years, NHL games will have been witnessed by only those real diehards who happen to live within reach of Billy Smith's stick. That's because the NHL, showing its usual perspicacity, ditched ESPN in favor of regional cable TV outfits. The new three-year deal provides each NHL team with an additional $600,000 per year, but the total audience potential of the regional cables is some 80% less than that of ESPN. To see an NHL game, a hockey maven in, say, Albuquerque, will either have to invest in a satellite dish or buy a round-trip ticket to an NHL town. No problem, figures the NHL brain trust, to whom the popularity of the sport across the U.S. is obviously a low priority.
Lamentably the NHL still will let every Tom, Dick and Harry into the Stanley Cup playoffs. There is nothing more meaningless than an NHL season: 21 teams play a total of 840 games to determine which five teams won't make the playoffs. Last year, after charging down the homestretch with a 2-14 record, the Toronto Maple Leafs finished 21-49-10 to nip the Minnesota North Stars by a point for the final Norris Division berth. Toronto should have been dropped to the minor leagues for a season, not allowed into the playoffs.
It's easy to peer into the future and predict the 16 teams that will make the playoffs in April. So we'll take the road less traveled and nominate the true NHL elite, the five teams that won't make the playoffs: Vancouver, Toronto, Quebec, the New York Rangers and Washington. Here then are our predictions for the divisional breakdowns, with teams listed in ascending order of proficiency:
In the Smythe Division, it used to be a battle between Vancouver and the Los Angeles Kings to see who would begin their summer vacation first. But the Canucks have recently taken much of the suspense from that race, finishing out of the money in three of the past four seasons. Come April, it will be four of five. The Canucks did little to improve their on-ice personnel in the off-season. They did, however, fire their trainer, Ken Fleger, whom management had suspected of being a source of leaks to the press. The front office evidently figures that by plugging the supposed leak, the Canucks will be better on the ice.
The Winnipeg Jets have traditionally been conceded third place in the Smythe. No m�s. The addition of Wayne Gretzky won't win the division for the Kings, but it should be worth third place in the standings. Ex-Oiler forwards Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley and ex-Flyer defenseman Doug Crossman (a very unhappy camper in Philadelphia) also will make life more enjoyable for Los Angeles sharpshooters Luc Robitaille, Dave Taylor and Bernie Nicholls.
There is a swell ceremony scheduled for Oct. 6 in Calgary to award the Flames a handsome trophy for piling up more points (105) last season than any other team. The Flames also will divvy up the $200,000 that comes with the trophy. Of course, they probably need the money because they had four extra weeks of summer vacation. That's four weeks more than the Oilers, who finished second to Calgary in the regular season but swept the Flames in the playoffs. In hopes of avoiding a repeat, Flames general manager Cliff Fletcher picked up Doug Gilmour, a superb two-way center, and winger Mark Hunter, a tough guy who can score (he had 68 goals spread over the past two seasons), from St. Louis.
In Edmonton, Gretzky is irreplaceable, of course, but things could be a lot worse. At least general manager-coach Glen Sather has Jimmy Carson to help fill the Great One's spot. The 20-year-old Carson had 92 goals in two seasons with L. A. Whatever slack Carson doesn't pick up will be handled by Edmonton's five other world-class players—Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Craig Simpson and Grant Fuhr, who simply is the world's best goaltender. And the Oilers proved last season that they know how to win without Gretzky; when the Great One was injured, Edmonton was 7-5-4.
The distinction of finishing last in the Norris Division will belong to Toronto. Through thick and thin—mostly thin—Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard has not wavered in his support of coach John Brophy. whose two-year record with the Leafs is 53-91-16. New general manager Gord Stellick, the 31-year-old wunderkind and former Leafs press-box gofer, will give Brophy until about Thanksgiving to turn things around.