Five of the six teams in the not-quite-what-it-used-to-be Patrick Division are either one good rookie or a smart trade away from finishing first. Those same teams are also one costly injury away from missing the playoffs.
After reaching the semifinals of the playoffs in 1987-88, the New Jersey Devils failed to qualify for postseason play last season. Now the Devils, who have one of the league's best goalies in Sean Burke, have added world-class defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov of the Soviet Union to an already sound defense. They have also added scoring punch up front with the acquisitions of Walt Poddubny from the Quebec Nordiques and Sylvain Turgeon from the Hartford Whalers. Don't be surprised if New Jersey wins its first division title.
When not burdened by injuries, Philadelphia may still have the best team in the division. But the Flyers are getting older and their bodies are failing them. Moreover, goalie Ron Hextall, who has been suspended for the season's first 12 games because of a slashing assault on Montreal's Chris Chelios in the playoffs refuses to play until he gets a new contract. In his absence, Philly should get capable goaltending from Ken Wregget, but too many of the Flyers' best players will be thirtysomething by season's end.
After a protracted and clumsily conducted search, the Rangers gave the general manager's job to Neil Smith, 35, who had been Detroit's director of scouting. He replaces Phil Esposito, who fired coach Michel Bergeron four days before the start of the playoffs. Espo took over as coach and watched the Rangers go 0 for 4 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.
Smith promises stability, which is something new in New York. There will also be a fresh emphasis on defense with the hiring of Neilson, old Captain Video, who pioneered the study of videotape in the NHL when he coached Toronto in 1977-78. Trouble is, the Rangers also have a marshmallow middle—they have only two proven centers, Carey Wilson and Kelly Kisio—not suited for the Patrick Division grind.
Washington failed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs for the seventh straight year because it was again outgoaltended. Then the Capitals allowed their No. 1 netminder, Pete Peeters, to slip away as a free agent. So far they have no replacement other than the recycled Don Beaupre and Bob Mason. They will get someone else; the question is, How soon and how good? Last season's deadline trades, which brought Dino Ciccarelli and Bob Rouse (from Minnesota) and Calle Johansson (from Buffalo), sparked a hot March run that resulted in Washington's first division title. Now, however, center Bengt Gustafsson, the Capitals' best all-around player in 1988-89, has gone home to play in Sweden, where the season is even shorter than the one in Washington.
When the Mario Lemieux-led Pittsburgh Penguins made the playoffs for the first time in seven springs, many observers thought that Pittsburgh would become the league's next power. But in the second round the stronger and deeper Flyers systematically ground down the Penguins. Thin, porous Pittsburgh may be in for more of the same this season. The Penguins will win when they get exceptional goaltending from Tom Barrasso, but they won't go far in the playoffs without more muscle.
One team that won't win the division is the New York Islanders. Old Radar, Al Arbour, acceded to general manager Bill Torrey's plea and returned to coaching at midseason. By that time you needed sonar to find the Islanders in the standings. Still, Arbour has made champions out of kids before, and the Islanders have a few youngsters worthy of attention—goalie Mark Fitzpatrick and right wing David Volek in particular—as they start the long road back.
Montreal, last season's Adams Division champion, was the only NHL team in Calgary's class. The highly disciplined Canadiens reached the Cup finals without so much as a 35-goal scorer. Now Robinson is in L.A., former team captain Bob Gainey is a player-coach in France, and veteran defenseman Rick Green has retired. With these leaders gone, so is the large gap between the Canadiens and the rest of the Wales Conference. In fact, when an election was held to find a captain to replace Gainey, cocaptains had to be declared; Chelios, the best defenseman in the league last year, and Guy Carbonneau, the NHL's best defensive forward, were named on the same number of ballots.
Buffalo's Pierre Turgeon, the first player taken in the 1987 draft, broke the point-a-game plateau last season and showed signs of becoming the NHL's next star. If he takes off, so may the Sabres. They're older and wiser since blowing their chance to put Boston away in the first round of last season's playoffs. They also will be happier with the uncommunicative Sator gone in favor of Rick Dudley.