Edmonton still has some of the game's best players, including goalie Grant Fuhr, who retired briefly during the summer before he found out that it was the league, not the Oilers, that was refusing to allow him to advertise a soft drink on his pads. An appendectomy will sideline Fuhr for the first month of the season, but more serious surgery is needed on Edmonton's shaky defense. Also, center Jimmy Carson, the prime acquisition in the Gretzky deal, wants to play in the States. That is one of several reasons that the time is right for Glen Sather to give up coaching and become a full-time general manager. He has a lot of work to do.
In June 1988 the Vancouver Canucks finally drafted a skilled, good-character player around whom they can build. Center Trevor Linden, 19, more than fulfilled expectations by scoring 30 goals. In the first round of the playoffs, only an outstanding seventh-game overtime save by Calgary goalie Mike Vernon kept the Canucks from eliminating the Flames. Defenseman Paul Reinhart, an old, broken-down nag rescued from the Calgary glue factory, helped Vancouver amass the third-best goals-against average in the league. It's not clear how the Canucks did this, even with Reinhart, so there's no telling if they can do it again. Nonetheless, the addition of two players from the Soviet Red Army team, center Igor Larionov and left wing Vladimir Krutov, and the welcome toning down of Vancouver's infamous Halloween uniforms may finally give this long-cursed franchise a ghost of a chance.
The mandate of Bob Murdoch, the new coach of the hapless Winnipeg Jets, is to help find offensive support for Dale Hawerchuk, a superb scorer whose attitude and production have suffered as a result of his being a one-man show. Murdoch also needs a real goalie to replace the ice sculptures the Jets have been using.
While Calgary had to do major construction to break Edmonton's reign atop the Smythe from 1981-87, Norris Division teams have always believed that a hammer, a few nails and some cheap paint are enough to make them the best on the block. This thinking, which is about as deep as a Norris team's roster, may finally be changing.
Iron Mike Keenan, who had been accused of cracking the whip too often when he coached the Philadelphia Flyers, was brought in by the Chicago Blackhawks last season to provide some discipline. When he said "Jump" during an early-season practice, Denis Savard, the Hawks' star scorer, almost leaped over the boards and walked out. Teammates persuaded Savard to remain on the ice, but one couldn't be sure the Chicago players were buying Keenan's program until general manager Bob Pulford acquired goalie Alain Chevrier from Winnipeg last January. The Blackhawks then marched fairly easily through two rounds of postseason play.
"Last season was an educational process, not only for Denis but for the entire team," Keenan said early in this year's training camp. "We threw a lot of challenges at him and he responded. In the end they all realized what we were trying to accomplish." Still, this training camp opened with Savard wondering about Keenan's methods. "He tries to embarrass you in front of the team,"' Savard said. "He tries to get you going that way. I'm not saying it's the wrong way or the right way.... I can't control what Mike does but I'm going to score 35 to 40 goals and 120 points and have fun." Keenan believes the Hawks have a potential star in rookie Jeremy Roenick (nine goals and nine assists in 20 games last season) and might want to build around him instead of the sensitive Savard.
Detroit, which appeared to be on the rise two years ago, needed a monstrous season by Steve Yzerman (155 points) just to reach .500. The Red Wings were hurt by alcohol and drug abuse: Right wing Bob Probert was banned from the NHL for life after he was arrested for transporting cocaine across the Canadian border, and left wing Petr Klima was charged with drunk driving for the third time; he has been convicted once and has served a 28-day jail term for violation of probation. Then, while the other teams in the division finally appear to be thinking long-term by holding on to draft choices and building with youth, the Wings went out and made themselves older through off-season trades.
The St. Louis Blues sent their alltime leading scorer, Bernie Federko, 33, to Detroit for center Adam Oates, 27. But if the Blues improve, it will be because their rookie center, Rod Brind' Amour, turns out to be the real thing.
The Minnesota No Stars must have realized just how badly they had overrated their talent when Dave Gagner, a retread who started 1988-89 in the minors, became their leading scorer by a wide margin. Pierre Page, who took over as coach last season, did give Minnesota some understanding of the terms "self-sacrifice" and "playing defense," so some respectability, if not excitement, has been regained. The North Stars need a big rookie year from center Mike Modano, the first pick in the '88 draft, to move up another notch.
For eight consecutive years the Toronto Maple Leafs have had no worse than the seventh pick in the draft, and they still haven't become respectable. The prospects for improvement will remain nonexistent until Harold Ballard, the Leafs' tragicomic 86-year-old owner, stops embarrassing himself and his coaches with his meddlesome antics.